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Separating Diego from Maradona

  • ‘Senna’ and ‘Amy’ director Asif Kapadia puts the spotlight on the legendary footballer in his new documentary
  • The film’s journey takes us through Argentina’s Maradona-inspired triumph in the 1986 football World Cup and his years at Napoli

A still from the documentary
A still from the documentary

In one of the most arresting sequences in Diego Maradona, the camera zooms in on the footballer’s face for several seconds. The scene is from a party, at a time when the Argentinean was at the peak of his career. Yet his eyes and face reflect fear, anxiety and confusion.

It is moments like these that film-maker Asif Kapadia likes to focus on, to tell the story of his principal character through visuals rather than commentary. Much like his previously acclaimed documentaries, on the Formula One (F1) driver Ayrton Senna and singer Amy Winehouse, the film on Maradona is real, raw and not so pretty.

Diego Maradona with Asif Kapadia.
Diego Maradona with Asif Kapadia.

“I am interested in people who are imperfect. I like the idea of showing complexity that comes with reality. I find these characters edgy and not particularly likeable, which is much more interesting," says Kapadia, at PVR Phoenix in Mumbai to promote his film.

“When you see the film, you realize he (Maradona) is vulnerable like a lost child. One of the most interesting things is the look in his face. I get obsessed with the characters and studying their eyes—that is where the truth is."

Covering the mid-1980s through the early 1990s, the film’s journey takes us through Argentina’s Maradona-inspired triumph in the 1986 football World Cup and his transfer from leading Spanish club Barcelona to lowly Napoli in Naples, Italy. It is here that he finds tremendous love and success before the eventual infamy and decline.

The world’s then most expensive footballer, bought by “Europe’s poorest city", came under the influence of drugs and the mafia, leading to his fall from grace. In another instance of storytelling through visuals, when a newly-arrived Maradona attends his first press conference for Napoli, a reporter asks him about the mafia. The camera zooms in to his face to reveal ignorance, and, perhaps, momentary panic.

Kapadia, whose Amy won an Academy Award in 2016 for best feature documentary, used over 500 hours of archival footage to piece together Diego Maradona. One of Maradona’s early agents, recognizing his ward’s potential to be globally famous, had hired a couple of cameramen to follow the footballer around when he was just 20. They shot him at matches, inside dressing rooms and at parties, followed him in Argentina, Spain and Italy. Those tapes, owned by Maradona, were lying in Buenos Aires before he gave Kapadia access to them.

“The main reason (to make this film) is because of the chaos and drama in his life," explains 47-year-old Kapadia, who grew up in the UK watching Maradona play. “The other key thing was this potentially huge amount of footage we could access that no one had seen."

The 58-year-old former footballer liked Senna, and it helped that Amy won an Oscar during their negotiations.

The over 2-hour film is built on these old visuals, besides interviews with around 80 people, including Maradona.

“My job is part detective, part journalist, part politician, part therapist, and then a bit of film-maker somewhere in there," says Kapadia, raising his voice as a blender goes off in the background. “There is something about the texture, intimacy and quality of the material which I really love, when the rest of the world is getting obsessed with digital and 8K. I like slightly soft focus old footage that’s real, has an integrity and is imperfect—in the sense that the footage matches the characters."

Kapadia, who has made feature films like The Warrior and Far North, describes the differences in process. While features follow a more liner trajectory—writing, casting, raising money, shooting and editing—his documentaries are organic. His research team undertakes a thorough search for material. He conducts interviews accordingly—conversations with Maradona lasted for 9 hours over four-five meetings. Then all the old footage, which was not labelled, was studied, followed by the edit.

“Each process informs the other. There is never a script or a written document at all—they are written literally during the edit," says Kapadia, who has also directed a few episodes of the TV series Mindhunter.

He agrees that it would be much easier to make a longer television series instead of summing up someone’s life in a documentary. But he finds episodic shows sometimes boring. “What’s the one definitive moment, shot or scene that explains a part of the character? Like that, every single shot and sound is there for a reason—that’s an obsession that comes to this process. Interviews are done for information and to tell you the story. We only use a short amount because less is more for me."

Kapadia is unsure about what he will do next. He likes the thought of writing a script again for a feature drama after being involved with documentaries for over a decade.

“When you look at the work of (Andy) Warhol, etc., they take an image of Marilyn Monroe, for example, and somehow re-photograph or reframe it, adding texture and colour so you get a different meaning. It’s kind of what I do. I take stories of people you think you already know and somehow reveal another layer. I like to select pop cultural characters with a much deeper resonance that says something about us, the times and world we live in and how we treat people."

Like Maradona, Kapadia’s previous subjects were troubled characters. Three-time F1 world champion Senna was at the peak of his career when he died in a car crash at age 34 in 1994. His famed rivalry with Alain Prost is still considered one of the most intense in sport.

Winehouse was only 27 when she succumbed to drugs and alcohol abuse. “They are all brilliant, worked hard at what they did from a young age, became successful in their own ways and suffered from their art," says Kapadia. “The way Senna drove was a spiritual way of existing, standing up for what he believed in and expressing himself through driving. Everything about Amy’s character came from her singing and performance, personal and raw.

“Maradona played the way he lived. He is a street guy, from a poor, tough place, a slum. He cheats, but he is also brilliant. He lived like that off the pitch too, including hanging with gangsters."

It’s also the way interviewees describe Maradona in the film, separating “Diego", the boy they knew, from “Maradona", the superstar they could not relate to. “A little bit of cheating with lots of genius?" says one voice in the film. “A kid who stirs things up, fights and wins," says another. “Rebel. Cheat. Hero. God," proclaims another.

The differences between the three stars came from class, says Kapadia. Senna was educated, from a wealthy background, Winehouse was from the middle class, an artist, while Maradona came from the poorest background. “Senna was generally in control until the technology changed. Amy lost control when she became famous. Diego comes to this crazy place called Naples in Italy at a time in the 1980s when it had the highest murder rate in Europe and was one of the most dangerous places."

While the film is centred on his time at Napoli, not all of Diego Maradona is gloom and doom. Moments leading up to and in Naples show the joyous side of the midfielder, who was able to drag both club and country to titles through sheer ability.

Perhaps nothing typifies his genius as his “Goal of the Century" in the 1986 World Cup game against England. Visuals of him slaloming past the English players after receiving the ball in his own half are widely available. Even Kapadia’s documentary would have been incomplete without it. The Spanish commentary from Victor Hugo Morales is no less iconic, encapsulating what those moments came to mean for generations of football lovers: “Thank you, God. For football. For Maradona. For the tears."

Diego Maradona released in cinemas on 11 October.

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

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