The Oscar-winning director of ‘Amy’ talks to about his most difficult subject yet: the mercurial footballing great
“The thing about Diego Maradona is that he does not sit there and self-analyse,” says Asif Kapadia, of the subject of his new documentary. “He’s never made a mistake in his life. Maradona is never wrong.”
You get the impression that the director of two of the best documentaries of recent years, Senna and the Oscar-winning Amy, is relieved that he doesn’t have to spend any more time in the company of the former footballer.
Not that he ended up spending much time with him anyway. Maradona, who lives in Juarez, managing a second division side in the most dangerous city in Mexico, didn’t even turn up for the world premiere of his movie.
It all looked so promising at first. After Kapadia won the Oscar for his film about Amy Winehouse in 2016, he looked at his phone and saw that Maradona had posted, proudly, on Facebook that the director was now going to make a documentary about him.
It seemed that the 47-year old Londoner was going to be able to do something that the two-time Palme d’Or-winning Emir Kusturica could not when he made a documentary about Maradona a decade ago – namely to get his protagonist to give intelligible answers and offer some perspective on his life, career and fast times.
It was to prove a forlorn hope. The first time Kapadia went to interview the one-time World Cup-winning captain, it was in Dubai, where he was living in a luxury apartment. “We were there for five days and I couldn’t get to talk to him. It was when I was almost on my way to the airport that I finally talked myself into his home.
“And it was a five-minute chat. ‘Hello, are we going to make a great film? Let’s get a picture, bye.’ It was at that moment that I thought: I’ll just make this film the way I made Senna and Amy.”
Both films were made after the death of the subject and are made up only of archive material – there are no talking heads. So Kapadia set his team to work, searching through television footage from Argentina, Spain and Italy, tracking down private collectors, including a dangerous trip to the part of Buenos Aires where Maradona grew up, to speak to those who knew him.
Ultimately, Kapadia was thankful that he didn’t have to rely on what Maradona thought or had to say about his past: “The film that I made is about a guy in the 80s, and the guy I’m talking to now is not the same person. He’s been through a lot of stuff, so how much does he remember?”
The director took much of what his subject said with a pinch of salt. He interviewed fitness coach Fernando Signorini, who told him that the footballer was a Jekyll-and-Hyde character: there was Diego, the affectionate kid from the slums, a man of the people; then there was Maradona, the egomaniac.
When he asked for advice on how to approach an interview with Maradona, Signorini told him: “Just be aware that you’re going to be in the presence of the world’s greatest liar.”
The resulting film, Diego Maradona, is a roller coaster ride. “He’s a difficult person to nail down,” says Kapadia. “And he’s a pro at diversion. He is almost 60 years old and there has never been a boring moment in his life.”
Kapadia spotted a pattern in the life of the footballer, who made his debut aged 15, at Argentinos Juniors in 1976 and went on to play at Barcelona, Napoli and Sevilla.
It went as follows: Maradona arrives at a club with much fanfare; he does something spectacular on the pitch and is fêted; then he falls out with someone and leaves under a cloud.
The director chose to make his film about the years from 1984 to 1991, when Maradona played for Napoli, transforming the fortunes of the Italian club. They had never won the Italian league before he arrived, they won it twice while he was there, and have not won it since he left.
As such, Maradona still holds god-like status at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, despite the illegitimate children, his links to the local Mafia, and regular cocaine binges. “The idea was to make a film about the point when he was the best footballer in the world and the troubles began,” explains Kapadia.
Whether those troubles began in Naples or at Barcelona – when Maradona tried cocaine for the first time and fought with fans – is contentious. What is indisputable is that over that period in Italy, Maradona played the beautiful game better than anyone else on the planet at the time. Or, arguably, ever.
Kapadia is a big football fan and was in the stadium in Madrid when his beloved Liverpool won the European Cup for a sixth time earlier this month.
He also remembers the low of seeing England knocked out by Maradona’s infamous “Hand of God” goal at the Mexico World Cup in 1986. Maradona has been loathed by many ever since, so it is a major achievement that Kapadia manages to find a sympathetic angle.
“Maradona has quite a powerful presence,” he says. “I had the urge to touch his left foot. I made a grab for his left ankle, the leg he had broken, and Maradona doesn’t like being touched at all.”
According to Kapadia, the reason the left foot thrived in Naples and not in Barcelona is that Maradona “has an affinity with the ordinary people. He’s a guy from the street. The problem he had in Barcelona was that he felt he wasn’t worthy, the people were of a much higher class than him, whereas in Naples the people are just like him – which is what he likes.”
The documentary is the third part of Kapadia’s “tragic icon” trilogy. “There are themes that they have in common,” he says.
“Diego is a bit of Senna and a bit of Amy and himself all mixed together.”