An Asian turn at the Oscars

first_imgAsif Kapadia just won the Oscar for the Best Documentary feature for Amy, the story of the singer-song writer who rose to international fame with her song Rehab. This is big news, really huge news: British Asians are a strong voice in the British film and television industry. So how,Asif Kapadia just won the Oscar for the Best Documentary feature for Amy, the story of the singer-song writer who rose to international fame with her song Rehab. This is big news, really huge news: British Asians are a strong voice in the British film and television industry. So how did Kapadia get to that stage in Hollywood?Kapadia is a 43-year old who hails from the great formless expanse of Hackney in North East London. He is an affable, serious chap. His film training started at film school in Newport, Wales which, let’s face it, is not an auspicious start to any film career. In fact, Kapadia attending the inspiringly named Newport Film School is the single most important Film Fact about Newport.His first feature film, the multi-award winning The Warrior, starring a young Irrfan Khan, was about a hired killer finding his conscience, in a mystical, Eastern way. It was one of those movies that appeals to people who like the scenery to play the main role, and be able to say things like, “It’s visually stunning!” Far North followed with an all-star cast lead by Michelle Yeoh and Sean Bean. It is a story of a very chilly love triangle but again the huge barren beauty of the Arctic takes centrestage.Kapadia seemed set on a slightly indulged career as a writer-director making beautiful movies for an increasingly small subset of audience. And then, inexplicably, the producers of a movie about possibly the most loved of Formula One racer, Ayrton Senna, decided that, as a Hackney Asian boy with no understanding or interest in Formula One, he was the perfect choice to direct their documentary. The producers wanted a fresh objective view on the material. They didn’t want a fan who had grown up watching the beautiful Brazilian racing god fulfilling their every young boy dream: winning races, getting the girls, drinking from those vast bottles of champagne that only seem to exist for male motor sport winners to spray each other with, and the grateful crowds, in orgasmic ecstasy.advertisementThey were right. Kapadia smashed it. Senna is a really excellent, fun and exciting movie, told by an outsider who focuses on the very human story of ambition, rivalry and love. It was the highest grossing documentary of all time in Britain. Because of this massive surprise hit, Amy Winehouse’s record label contacted Kapadia, really quite soon after her death it seems, to make a documentary about her.Kapadia says, “We started a year after she died and it felt too soon, but you realised that nobody had dealt with it yet and moved on. It was so raw. The voices, when you hear them in the film, are on the verge of tears because it’s the first time they’ve talked about her to anybody outside of their own family. Everybody cried. Everybody broke down.”With Senna, there is distance, time has softened the main protagonists and their responses to past rivalries- such as with Alain Prost-have taken on an almost dream-like quality. All the tempests of youth are past and the protagonists are reflective and nostalgic. This was not going to be possible with Amy, and Kapadia wasn’t going to be able to be the objective observer. Amy Winehouse’s story is a story of all of us now, too close to home. Time has healed no wounds.Amy Winehouse and Asif Kapadia both come from the same North London melting pot. His background was Indian, hers was Jewish. Whatevs bruv, they is both London innit. When Amy Winehouse won her Grammy for Best Album, she dedicated it to London with love and hatred. Nowhere else in the world could have created this crazy brilliant singer-songwriter, and nowhere else would have set itself so single-mindedly on her destruction, hounding her pitilessly. She died at 27 by accidental alcohol poisoning and the cumulative toll that the eating disorder bulimia inflicted on her body.Kapadia is in lots of ways the perfect storyteller for her tale. His generation of British Asians came of age in the late ’90s. They stormed the London club scene, set up their own magazines, made new music, took what they wanted, and created the new. Similarly, Winehouse was brought up with an old-school North London Jewish love of American Jazz standards and crashed head first into the early naughties, new wave of British punk rock that centred on Camden. The sound that came out of this fusion was uniquely her, uniquely London, uniquely heartbreaking.advertisementAnd this weekend, Hollywood decided that this documentary was the one to get the Oscar.In his Oscar acceptance speech, Kapadia thanked all of those who trusted him to tell Amy’s tale and to help show who she really was. That she is not a tabloid creation, she was a talented, funny, flawed, brilliant songwriter who “needed to be looked after”. Making the movie was clearly a minefield that the team trod through with extreme caution. He says, “Her circles of friends didn’t trust one another and they all blamed each other, so there’s all this guilt and anger, and all this pain.” Amy’s very vocal father Mitch has publicly condemned the movie, a lot (which doesn’t paint him in the light that he clearly sees himself in).Both Senna and Amy dispense with a narrator, allowing the stories to unfold through the voice overs of the contributors. Amy is a very different movie from Senna despite the similarities in structure: it is not a homage to a past golden age, but a mirror held up to us here and now, which reflects our society, warts and all. The voices of Ayrton Senna and Amy Winehouse are used extensively to drive the narrative forward and, with Amy, her hand-written song lyrics come to life as they are written out again and again across the screen, as she turns her pain into gold, singing songs of raw and terrible beauty.”Now, when people hear her songs, they suddenly understand that they’re so much deeper,” says Kapadia. “She was an amazing artiste. She could write, she could come up with the music and she could sing. She had the whole package. But somehow she became tabloid culture, where people don’t like her on principle. If the film has done anything, it’s taken her out of that sphere and put her back where she belongs, as a proper artiste.”Although Kapadia has called the process of making Amy exhausting, he is diving back into another larger than life personality for his next film, Maradona. Diego Maradona has been called, often, the greatest footballer of all time. Maradona has already anointed him as a worthy teller of his tale, posting a picture of Kapadia with the Oscar saying, “I should like to congratulate the filmmaker Asif Kapadia, winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary. He will be the director of the next documentary about my life.” If Kapadia thinks making a movie about dead celebrities was tricky, wait till he starts to make one about a celebrity who is still alive. May the Hand of God be with him.Jessica Hines is a London-based film and travel writerFollow the writer on Twitter @Londonishstylelast_img

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