EIFF 2015 interview: Amy director Asif Kapadia – ‘Amy was treated as something from the gutter’
A huge musical talent stopped tragically short, Amy Winehouse's life and death is now a compellingly bleak documentary
Director Asif Kapadia likes to play the outsider. From his very first feature, the critically acclaimed 2001 drama The Warrior, to his current production, an adaptation of the novel Ali and Nino, he has travelled to far-flung corners of the globe. The Warrior took him to northern India and the Himalayas; Ali and Nino sees him filming in Azerbaijan. Even when working on the BAFTA-winning documentary Senna which charted the life and death of the celebrated F1 driver, he was immersed in a world he didn’t know.
The team behind Senna have now turned their talents to another documentary, this time on Amy Winehouse. Simply entitled Amy, the film has already caused a stir at the Cannes Film Festival and finally brings Kapadia home to North London where he grew up.
'I have made a lot of movies,' begins the 43-year-old director. ‘But while I live in London, I usually make films abroad, far away from home, and I almost use that as a way to be an outsider looking into another world. I haven’t really made films in the UK. I feel very much a Londoner, though, and when [Senna producer] James Gay-Rees called me about an Amy Winehouse documentary, he caught me at the right time. I wanted to make a film that would explore not only a fascinating talent, but also the world in which she was raised.'
Amy Winehouse was born in Enfield and grew up in North London’s Southgate, going on to become one of the most widely lauded singer-songwriters of the early 21st century (she won five Grammys) before drink and drugs brought her life to an early end. She died in 2011 aged just 27.
As Kapadia’s film shows, she was undoubtedly a prodigiously talented musician, though her complicated personal life led her down a dark and harrowing path where she became tabloid fodder and, in certain media circles, a source of ridicule. 'It was so easy and it was a cheap gag,’ he remarks. ‘Every country in the world was making fun of a girl who, essentially, had a mental illness.'
The film follows a similar format to Senna, relying solely on footage and eschewing ‘talking heads’ with interview content playing out over the pictures. But while the F1 film was full of love and light and – despite the tragedy that ended Senna’s life – positivity and hope, Amy is a darker and much more intense experience. 'Senna’s life was very positive and he was surrounded by love,' explains Kapadia. 'But Amy’s story isn’t a happy one. There is a lot of darkness and that comes out in her and the way in which she expresses herself. You have to be honest to the subject, so this is a heavier film. Senna was treated like a god but Amy was treated as something from the gutter.'
Throughout the process, the filmmakers had to ensure that the film did not simply regurgitate the controversy and pain that dogged Winehouse’s later life. 'We didn’t want to make misery porn,' says producer Gay-Rees. They had to find the light that contrasted with the dark. Indeed, one of the film’s greatest successes is the joy it finds during Winehouse’s early life, which is shown via footage from her two closest childhood friends, Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, and also her first-ever manager, Nick Shymansky.
Acquiring this footage was far from easy and it took Kapadia many months to win these people’s trust. 'It became a journey that was different from Senna because I had to get people to trust me,' he says. 'It was all quite recent and painful for a lot of people, and there was a lot of guilt and mistrust. There was a lot of baggage.' It was a journey worth pursuing as the early footage is revelatory. Here we see Winehouse before fame, alcohol, drugs and an eating disorder take their toll. 'There’s laughter at the start where Amy is funny and she’s witty,' the director says. 'Then it gets heavier as it goes along.'
The filmmakers, while never judging Winehouse or those around her, suggest that the problems which afflicted her later life were perhaps born during her childhood. 'She was funny and talented, and what happens later on is because of something earlier in her life,' adds Kapadia. 'It all goes back to youth and childhood and growing up. She was a product of her experiences. The art came out of that, but so did the darkness and the loneliness. I think it is a film about a person who wants to be loved, someone who needs that and doesn’t get always it. For me, Amy is a very dark film about love.'
Amy screens at Filmhouse 1, 18 Jun at 8.35pm & 20 Jun at 2.30pm, as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Selected release from Fri 3 Jul.