Framing Rivalry: the representation of Alain Prost in Senna (2010) [Paper] (via Google Images)

Senna is a 2010 documentary film, directed by Asif Kapadia, that portrays the public and personal life and the tragic death of Formula 1-racer Ayrton Senna (1960-1994). Despite receiving general critical acclaim of journalists worldwide[1], Formula 1-racer Alain Prost (1955), former team member and eventual life-long rival of Senna, explicitly renounced the way in which he was represented in the film. This paper discusses Prost’s major arguments for this renunciation in the light of the two existing versions of the film and their differences in terms of content and montage. I argue that the award-winning[2] montage of the regular, theatrical cut establishes a paradoxical relation between the film’s purportedly independent quality as an artwork and the external objections of its accuser: while the film’s critical acclaim is partly the result of the refined montage, the montage is also precisely what has made the film controversial.

Prost versus Senna

Ayrton Senna was a talented kart racer in his early twenties when his outstanding accomplishments on track gained him his first Formula 1-contract. In 1984, Senna’s sudden second place at the race court of Monaco brought him instant fame.[3] The winner of the day was the circuit’s man-to-beat, McLaren-coureur Alain Prost. The documentary makes it evident, however, that the race was suspended under questionable circumstances. The official explanation of the organization was that the safety of the racers could no longer be guaranteed, due to the extreme rainfall on the track. The racing situation at the moment of suspension complicates this. Senna had started in thirteenth position, but his excellent maneuvers had gradually lifted him to the absolute frontline of the race. With only seven seconds to bridge[4], it is no wonder that the commentator on the audio track of the archival footage used for the documentary states[5] that ‘’if we had continued for a few more laps, I am sure Senna would have passed him (i.e. Prost, red.)’’. Directly following upon the race footage, Senna himself states[6] that ‘’Formula 1 is politics, money’’, while a British journalist tells us the race was considered a particularly French event (The FIA[7] was also housed in Paris) in a French area, with a leading French coureur being chased by a first year-freshman. ‘’To him’’, he explains with regard to Senna, ‘’there had to be some reason beside the rain, that was no problem to him, to where they took this victory away from him’’.[8]

Senna’s loss-by-decision marked the first conflict of interests between him and Prost. The documentary clearly perpetuates this narrative of rivalry throughout its running time. In 1988, Senna’s transfer to McLaren united him with Prost, which complicated the situation even more: as stated in the film, beating each other became more challenging than beating the rest of the field. With Prost moving to Ferrari after the racing season of 1989, the two continued their rivalry for a few more years, until Prost retired (at the end of 1993) and Senna suffered his tragic accident (in May 1994).

‘’I don’t care too much about being the bad boy’’

Prost did not watch the film directly after it had hit cinemas in the course of 2010 and 2011[9], but when he had done so, he completely objected to the way in which he had been represented. Speaking to ITV in 2012[10], he explained that there had been plenty of (presumably friendly) interaction between the two racers that obviously did not make it into the documentary. Instead, Prost stated, ‘’they[11] wanted to do a commercial thing going to the good and the bad. I don’t care too much about being the bad boy’’[12]. In a 2019 interview with Auto, Motor und Sport, Prost said that the available footage would have allowed a much better and more balanced film, adding that the film does not complicate Senna’s personality, which steers its good guy/bad guy distinction.[13]

Prost’s objections may[14] mainly concern the theatrical (106 min.) cut of the film, which is also the cut that was seen by most people. In this regard, there is another version of the film, a so-called ‘’extended version’’ of 162 min.,[15] that provides a more balanced perspective on the rivalry between Prost and Senna. I personally watched the extended version before I saw the theatrical cut, and I did not consider the film that controversial or overly problematic in terms of Prost’s representation.[16] The main reason is that the montage is rather loose and flexible compared with the theatrical cut. As a forum user states on a Reddit thread[17], interviews are repeatedly cut in halfway through theatrical sequences, which disrupts both the score and the continuity of the original cut. Another user adds that ‘’basically all that award-winning editing in the theatrical cut goes down the drain’’.[18]

The dialectics of art

A way to interpret this emphasis on refined editing is, connecting it to my own viewing experience, to say that the theatrical cut offers a type of visual and inter-personal (conflictive) dialectic that the extended version ‘lacks’. This dialectic predominantly builds on montage: interview montage of Prost is intercut with that of Senna, demonstrating, for instance, that Prost was always blaming his defeats on either his material or on other racers. Moreover, the documentary has Senna as its subject and hero from the beginning (see, for instance: the film’s subtitle: ‘’Beyond the Speed of Sound’’), and his loyal, honest personality stands in firm contrast with most of the Prost footage that is shown. With utterances like ‘’he revolts me’’ and ‘’he never wanted to beat me, he wanted to humiliate me’’, Prost’s attitude in the context of the film merely speaks of jealousy, fed by the realization that a young ‘pretender’ was coming to take his place at the top of the pyramid.

The tension between the clearly subjective narrative of rivalry that dominates the theatrical cut and its esthetic appropriation underlines that there exists a paradoxical relation between the film’s quality as an artwork (the refined montage of the theatrical cut) and the controversial framing that accompanies it. I use two extra comments from other users on the Reddit thread to stress the difference between the two versions in terms of ‘’framing rivalry’’:

‘’The extended version is more objective than the shorter one[19]. The shorter one vividly paints Prost as an evil counterpart. I’ve seen both, the shorter version is none to be desired. Extended is much better. It shows the cutthroat rivalry and the immense respect Senna and Prost had for each other.’’[20]


‘’As some one who just watched the film (Short Version) for first time less that 4 hours ago. Prost was portrayed in a very negative light.’’[21]

What we see here is a fundamental clash of interests: do we, as viewers, desire the cut that stands out as an artwork or the cut that pertains to a more ‘objective’ perspective of the rivalry between the racers? In both versions of the film, the archival footage (mainly the interview footage, with fragments of both Senna and Prost speaking) is not necessarily controversial on itself. Discussing archival footage[22] in line with a theoretical article by Rebecca Swender (2009), however, this footage was not created to become part of a secondary text. The material was (instead) fundamentally re-ordered by the makers, sacrificing, in the words of Vance Kepley, Jr. (professor of film at the University of Wisconsin-Madison), the integrity of the footage to the sequential logic of the film.[23] In the 2009 article, Swender proposes five attributes of archival footage, which she denotes as ‘’specificities’’, in an attempt to theoretically catalogue the ways in which this type of footage can be re-ordered in films (secondary texts). One of Swenders specificities, ‘’juxtapositional specificity’’, denotes precisely which quality complicate the theatrical cut of Senna:

‘’Juxtapositional specificity is the pairing or sequencing of images in order to forward a particular narrative trajectory or to support an argumentative truth claim.’’[24]

The ethics of art

As we have seen, the ‘’particular narrative trajectory’’ of Senna has ethical implications: because the makers perpetuated a dialectic between the subject of their film and his life-long rival, the integrity of Prost could not be protected, at least, not in the vision of Prost himself and some of the internet users that I have quoted. One ethical question remains: is such a choice justified if it actually allows the film (version) to stand out as a work of art? While I cannot possibly give a finite answer to this question without bringing in my own ethical worldview, I do deem it striking that two versions of the same film can evoke such various responses. If the discourse of documentary ethics merely evolves in a dialectic between the film text and the audience, and we would take the four user comments from the Reddit thread as samples, the extended version would be ethically responsible, while the theatrical cut would be ‘’none to be desired’’.[25]

In this paper, I have deliberately abstained from focusing on the perspective of the makers, that means, for instance, the director, the producers, and the editors that have re-ordered all the archival montage. I have chosen to do so because, in this case, I predominantly consider ‘controversy’ the product of reception, rather than intention. Probably there would have been no paper without the fierce responses of Prost, which encouraged me to revisit the theatrical cut (after having solely watched the extended version in the past). On the other hand, in the case of Senna, it is clear that the makers explicitly envisioned their own framing of the rivalry between Senna and Prost. On the commentary track of the Blu-Ray of the theatrical cut, Asif Kapadia says the following:

‘’Actually, at the time, the rivalry between Alain and Ayrton was so powerful and so strong, and so passionate, that I thought, if we could capture the footage of the time, and actually put that in the movie, rather than having people look back in reminiscence, we’d have a much more dramatic movie’’.

Conclusive remarks

With Kapadia adding that he is glad the film came about in this particular way, guaranteeing appeal to an intended audience, we can establish that the director has, at least in this context, no ethical objections to his own project (which does never have to be an a contradictio in terminis a priori). This is also why I do not whole-heartedly agree with Willemien Sanders’ proposition (2010) to start focusing more on ‘’ethical theories and how these inform filmmakers’ ideas about the right thing to do’’[26], which would have to be done merely via empirical research. While many filmmakers (but not all, as we have seen in the case of Kapadia) may indeed speak out about the ethical issues that they encounter and the ideas that inform their work[27] – and these matters are certainly worth the research – it is quite often the audience that ultimately makes the difference.

27 March 2020. This paper was written in the context of the UvA-course ‘’Documentary Imagination’’, taught by Charles Forceville.

Senna (2010). Directed by Asif Kapadia. 106 min. (theatrical cut)/ 162 min. (extended version). Documentary. Link blu-ray (TC).


Ayrton Senna. The Driver. ‘’The Day Senna Introduced Himself To Monaco’’. Accessed March 26th, 2020.
Collantine, Keith. ‘’Prost explains his objections to Senna film’’. Racefans. Accessed March 27th, 2020.
Collantine, Keith. ‘’The Making of Senna part 6: the perfect bad guy?’’. Racefans. Accessed March 27th, 2020.
Formula1. ‘’Ayrton Senna’’. Accessed March 26th, 2020.
Imdb. ‘’Senna’’. Accessed March 26th, 2020.
Moviemeter. ‘’Senna’’. Accessed March 26th, 2020.
Reddit. ‘’Question about different versions of the Senna film’’. Accessed March 26th, 2020.
Rotten Tomatoes. Accessed March 26th, 2020.
Sanders, Willemien. “Documentary filmmaking and ethics: Concepts, responsibilities, and the need for empirical research.” Mass Communication and Society 13(5) (2010): 528-553.
Senna. Directed by Asif Kapadia. 2010. Blu-Ray (Arc Entertainment, 2012).
Swender, Rebecca. ‘’Claiming the found: archive footage and documentary practice’’. Velvet Light Trap 64 (2009): 3-10.
Van der Burgt, Jan. ‘’’Bad guy’ Prost: ‘’Ik haat de Senna-film, ik haat hem echt’’. Accessed March 27th, 2020.


[1] Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes are two websites that compile metascores from different critic reviews. On Metacritic, Senna has a metascore of 79 (out of 30 reviews, see: Imdb, ‘’Senna’’,, accessed March 26th, 2020). On Rotten Tomatoes, the metascore is significantly higher: 93 % (out of 121 reviews, see: Rotten Tomatoes, ‘’Senna’’,, accessed March 26th, 2020).

[2] The editing of the film (by Gregers Sall and Chris King) was awarded a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) in 2011.

[3] Formula1, ‘’Ayrton Senna, (accessed March 26th, 2020).

[4] Ayrton Senna, The Driver, ‘’The Day Senna Introduced Himself To Monaco’’, (accessed March 26th, 2020).

[5] Only in the extended version, see my explanation later in this paper.

[6] In an interview, which is integrated in both versions of the film, and in both versions directly after the race footage.

[7] The ‘’Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile’’, the official association of Formula 1-sports.

[8] This journalist only appears at this point in the extended version of the film. However, in both versions of the film, this is clearly the beginning of the fierce rivalry between Prost and Senna.

[9] Keith Collantine, ‘’The Making of Senna Part 6: the perfect bad guy?’’, Racefans, (accessed March 27th, 2020).

[10] Keith Collantine, ‘’Prost explains his objections to Senna film’’, Racefans, (accessed March 27th, 2020).

[11] i.e. the production team of the film.

[12] Collantine, ‘’Prost explains his objections’’ (accessed March 27th, 2020).

[13] Paraphrased freely from a Dutch source quoting and translating the (German) interview, see: Jan van der Burgt, ‘’’Bad guy’ Prost: ‘’Ik haat de Senna-film, ik haat hem echt’’,, (accessed March 27th, 2020).

[14] I did not find an explication (by Prost) of the version that he watched.

[15] At some websites, the extended version is called the ‘’uncut’’ version, which might also be a proper term here. See, for instance: Moviemeter, ‘’Senna’’, (accessed March 26th, 2020).

[16] In fact, I found it more problematic that the film was so construed around the tragic death of Senna (leaning on the power of ‘’hindsight’’), which evoked a sense of exploitation with regard to the racer, who could obviously never agree on the film’s production.

[17] See: ‘gruso’. Reddit, ‘’Question about different versions of the Senna film’’, (accessed March 26th, 2020).

[18] See: ‘leucocrystal’. Reddit, ‘’Question’’(accessed March 26th, 2020).

[19] The theatrical cut.

[20] See: TheDugat. Reddit, ‘’Question’’ (accessed March 26th, 2020).

[21] See: ElToroNegro. Reddit, ‘’Question’’ (accessed March 26th, 2020).

[22] ‘’For the purposes of this investigation, “archive footage” is defined as any recovered actuality footage incorporated into a secondary text–a documentary film–that was not recorded for the specific purpose of being included in that film, whether or not that footage once happened to reside in a recognized film archive.’’ Rebecca Swender, ‘’Claiming the found: archive footage and documentary practice’’, Velvet Light Trap 64 (2009), pdf page 2 of 13.

[23] Quoted in Swender, ‘’Claiming the found’’, pdf page 3 of 13.

[24] Swender, ‘’Claiming the found’’, pdf page 4 of 13.

[25] See: TheDugat. Reddit, ‘’Question’’ (accessed March 26th, 2020).

[26] Willemien Sanders, “Documentary filmmaking and ethics: Concepts, responsibilities, and the need for empirical research”, Mass Communication and Society 13(5) (2010), 528.

[27] Sanders, ‘’Documentary filmmaking and ethics’’, 550.

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