September 30, 2019

How Diego Became Maradona

From Asif Kapadia's 'Diego Maradona,' which opens in theaters September 20, then premieres October 1 on HBO. Courtesy of Bob Thomas, Getty Images

Asif Kapadia’s new documentary about the Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona, a player almost as famous for his dubious conduct off the pitch as for his brilliance on it, opens with a POV shot through the windshield of a car. To the beat of a pulsating score, the vehicle dashes over city streets. 

We are seeing the world, it will become clear, through Maradona’s eyes as he speeds into a soccer stadium in Naples, Italy, to face a raucous press corps after his momentous signing by the local club. POV is critical to Kapadia’s style of documentary filmmaking, a style manifested in Amy (2015), about the late singer Amy Winehouse, and Senna (2010), about the late Brazilian Formula 1 racing great Ayrton Senna.

 “My job is to show the audience what is going on with them, what it is like to be Maradona, what is like to be Senna, what it is like to be Amy, not my opinion of them,” Kapadia maintains. “You have to try to say, What would they think, what would they feel, what are they experiencing, what is their point of view? It’s not what my point of view is; it’s what their point of view is.”

A hint to the filmmaker’s perspective comes from the names he’s selected for each of his three feature documentaries. “The clue is in the title,” he reveals. “It’s the world according to Senna. It’s the world according to Amy. And in this case it’s Diego and it’s Maradona and trying to show what it would be like to be him in Naples.”

Kapadia zeroed in on Naples because it proved the critical juncture in Maradona’s remarkable life and career, both its ecstatic highs and sordid lows. Maradona arrived there in 1984 already venerated as the world’s top player, and Napoli fans—who had never experienced a winning team—greeted him as a savior to deliver them from failure and strike a blow for a part of Italy traditionally maligned as a “sewer” by the more prosperous regions to the north. For Maradona it was a chance to get out of Barcelona, where he had spent two unhappy years on a prestige team.

Having established the stakes for his main character and the city where the action transpires, Kapadia unfolds the story in quasi-real time as Maradona battles to lift a second-rate team to championship status through sheer will and playmaking genius. But while he’s doing that, the night life-loving midfielder is being pulled deeper and deeper into the web of the Camorra, Naples’ notorious organized crime syndicate. 

 “That’s been quite an interesting challenge to make a film about him,” notes Kapadia. “You kind of go with the ride and at times there are things that he does that I would just never, ever, ever agree with, never want to be a part of.”

Among the stains on his reputation were fathering a child whose paternity he denied, battling a serious cocaine addiction and cheating on drug tests to conceal his habit. Before his life unraveled in spectacular fashion, he fulfilled every fevered wish of the Napoli fans, bringing them multiple titles, and he led his native Argentina to a World Cup victory in 1986 and to the World Cup final—on Italian soil—in 1990.

Kapadia, a football fan growing up in London, long nurtured a dream of doing a film on Maradona. “I read a book about him when I was a student in the mid-’90’s,” he recalls. “That’s the first time the germ of this project came along, which was about what an amazing character he is. So much drama. It’s like so much chaos.”

The Kapadia signature—archival-driven documentaries that eschew talking heads—applies to Diego Maradona. As with Senna and Amy, present-day interviews conducted by the director are used for audio only, covered with visuals from the time period being described. There’s a significant difference, of course, between his latest film and his earlier documentaries; Winehouse and Senna died young, but Maradona is still around, if not quite robust, at the age of 58.

 “It’s a much longer life, many more events, so to speak,” Kapadia comments. “It didn’t end tragically in the kind of sudden way that Senna and Amy’s lives ended, so I thought that would be a different type of challenge.’

One of the primary challenges became arranging an in-depth conversation with his subject. “Football is a game of deceit,” Maradona remarks in the film, referring to a scorer’s toolbox of misdirection and footwork feints, and it appeared he might end up just as elusive for the filmmaker.

 “The deal [struck with Maradona’s people] was three interviews, each of three hours in length,” Kapadia remembers. “But the complication was he was living in Dubai…He was always busy. He’s coaching or he’s busy traveling.” 

A brief meeting in the United Arab Emirates went nowhere, and many months passed, Kapadia says. “In the meantime I went to Naples. I went to Argentina,” he explains. “I interviewed other people, put together an assembly with the team. I thought maybe actually this is going to be far more similar to doing Senna and Amy… and we just make the film.” That is,  without a fresh interview with the main subject. But eventually Kapadia got a call inviting him to return to Dubai. He encountered a more willing, though inconsistent, Maradona. 

 “He was in his living room in his home, very calm, no entourage, no one else around, and actually he was quite a sweet guy,” Kapadia notes. “He wasn’t necessarily on his best form that [first] day. The next day he was in much better form and he got into it and the interview was fun and actually engaging and he was charming. I thought, If you get him on the right day, he’s in a good place; if you get him on the wrong day, there is nothing usable.” 

Kapadia came to the interviews with several objectives. “The difficult questions were going to be women, his relationships, the fact that he had a kid that he just did not recognize [as having fathered], the drugs problem, the addiction to cocaine, where it started, how it happened, and his relationship with the underworld.”

Maradona addressed those issues—not always head-on, perhaps, but with glancing shots. “It’s really fascinating when you meet someone like that,” the director observes, “because he isn’t necessarily ever going to look back and say, ‘Oh, I made a mistake at that point in my life and I regret that.’” 

The sense emerges in the film of not one character but two: there is Diego, the dirt-poor boy from a dangerous section of Buenos Aires, who carries a burden of expectation from his early teens onward, and Maradona, the adult whose extraordinary gift makes him an object first of mass adulation and later of scorn. Hence the two words of the title, Diego and Maradona.

 “There was always a feeling that Maradona as a character was part Senna and part Amy,” Kapidia observes. “He is a Latin hero and he has the pressure of a country, both countries [Italy and Argentina]. So one way he’s a macho Latin hero, but on the other hand he’s a very soft, vulnerable figure who is not set up for fame…and ends up with an issue with addiction covering up some sort of pain. So you have a lot in common.”

Diego Maradona arrested in Argentina in 1991. Courtesy of HBO

Diego Maradona premiered out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival in May, the same venue where Kapadia unveiled Amy to the world. The Winehouse film became a major box office hit, earning more than $8 million in North America alone, and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for Kapadia and producer James Gay-Rees. 

Kapadia insists the Oscar victory didn’t radically alter his life. “I would say in that way I’m very British…In my opinion, no, it hasn’t changed in any way,” he tells Documentary. “I’m really proud of what happened with Amy, but I don’t really want to be the person that is changed by an award, if that makes sense, or is affected by not winning an award, which is more often.” 

Diego Maradona is set for a limited theatrical release in the US on September 20 before it debuts on HBO October 1. Working out the distribution plan was no easy feat, Kapadia affirms. “There had to be a partnership between the Latin American and the US deals and the European deals and the international deals, a lot of which were pre-sold. I still wanted to see the film on the big screen in Naples or in Buenos Aires, but I also want as many people as possible to see it eventually on a smaller screen…HBO came in and they were willing to work with us. It’s a complex release, I have to say, and it’s the film more than Senna and Amy which has got a wide distribution around the world because it’s Maradona.” 

The documentary may well change widely held notions about Maradona, just as Kapadia’s earlier films did for Ayrton Senna and Amy Winehouse. “With Maradona most people knew he was a footballer and he became obese, he had a coke problem, and there are a lot of really bad jokes said about him in the same way they were said about Amy,” Kapadia comments. “What’s been interesting is having seen the film people definitively feel about him in a very different way, and they feel sorry for him, and they have a feeling for him…Once you understand these people and the humanity of these people, your perception changes.”

 

Matthew Carey is a documentary director and producer whose work has appeared on CNN and CNN International. He is editor-in-chief of Nonfictionfilm.com.

Tags: