I’ve recently watched two major sports documentaries that were both out in cinemas last year and that have both received high critical acclaim. On Saturday night, I watched Senna (dir. Asif Kapadia) on DVD. On Monday night, I watched Fire in Babylon (dir. Stevan Riley) on BBC4 as part of the Storyville series. Both featured sporting giants that I have been aware of since childhood, but perhaps I was never fully informed of their stories.
Everyone has been raving about Senna in the media from Stephen Fry to Zoe Ball. “You don’t have to like Formula 1”, they all say, “it’s for everyone”. And there are similar reviews about Fire in Babylon, a film about the West Indies cricket team from 1975-1984. Neither documentary gets bogged down in the sporting language or intricacies of the way in which the sport is played. They’re both about the personalities and the politics within and without the sport. But honestly, I think some understanding of both sports is necessary, precisely because neither film explains the sport itself that much, expecting non-sport lovers to just be taken in by the stories.
The shadow looming over Senna is of course Ayrton Senna’s fatal car crash in 1994. The whole film is leading to that endpoint – how Senna got to the top of his sporting field and then the tragedy of his demise. Using old footage from his races, old interviews with Senna, and some family home videos, Senna traces his rise from go-kart driver to three-time world champion. Particular focus is placed on his personal drive and character that pushed him to keep racing, his relationship with God, and his fierce rivalry with Alain Prost. You also get a very clear sense of how so very important Senna’s victories were for the country of Brazil. 1990s Brazil was a country of favelas, slums and poverty. Disregarding the national football team, the film explains how Senna’s victories gave Brazilians national pride at a time of economic and social misery. This was a guy who waved the Brazilian flag with pride and pushed through to victory in the Brazilian Grand Prix despite a jammed gear box and spasms in his shoulders.
Although Senna interviews some of Ayrton Senna’s contemporaries in the present-day, such as Ron Dennis from Maclaren, Senna’s sister, and various journalists, you don’t see their “talking heads”, you just hear their voices over the footage. It’s a film that greatly admires Ayrton Senna, the man and the driver, and he’s (obviously) the hero of the piece. You also realise the very real dangers of the sport – and how lucky Formula1 has been not to have had many more fatal crashes.
The danger of the sport is one of the themes of Fire in Babylon which traces the rise of the dominant West Indies cricket team over the 1970s, largely due to their aggressive fast-pace bowling attack who had no problem with hitting batsmen on their bodies. Of course, as the film explains, they were just copying the Australian bowlers Lillee and Thomson, but somehow when the West Indies copied their tactics no-one liked it anymore. This documentary does use “talking heads” of West Indian players from Sir Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and Clive Croft, and some West Indian historians, groundsmen, and Bunny Wailer from Bob Marley and the Wailers. Bunny Wailer is great! Showing how the West Indies cricket team developed from “calypso cricketers” to unbeaten for 15 years, Fire in Babylon also shows the Caribbean love for the game and is interspersed with various Caribbean bands/singers performing songs about cricket.
The film demonstrates how West Indies cricket united a disparate set of independent countries and islands – a set of people who also empathised with the civil rights movement in America and the apartheid struggle in South Africa. As with Senna, you get a palpable sense of how sports can really unite people, and provide so much joy and happiness to people when their teams are winning. It’s the people in the crowds, or those watching at home on the tv, or crowding round the radio, who live those sporting moments alongside their heroes and revel in them just as much.
A lot of the focus in Fire in Babylon was on race. On the racist abuse the West Indians faced, particularly in Australia. On how the international cricket board paid the West Indian cricketers much less than their English and Australian counterparts until Packer’s “World Series” of cricket made them sit up and take notice. On the vestiges of racism in the colonial relationship between Britain and the West Indies. On how Viv Richards’ stand against apartheid helped the struggle in South Africa. And how cricket gave pride to a group of people in the Caribbean who were struggling with their own economic and social problems.
It’s the charisma of Ayrton Senna and Viv Richards that really shine throughout, bringing to mind Muhammad Ali in Rumble in the Jungle, who is referenced in Fire in Babylon. And it’s the personalities, rather than the sporting prowess, that allow both films to succeed. As good as a Ricky Ponting or a Sebastien Vettel might be, you can’t see international audiences getting excited about documentaries on their lives and careers. It’s the nostalgia for some idea of a golden age of each sport, with vibrant sporting rivalries, that united downtrodden people that really inspires in both. And it makes you wonder if the power of “sport” will ever do the same again.