Amy director Asif Kapadia defends himself against Mitch Winehouse criticisms

How the Amy director made the documentary compelling, controversial and heartbreaking

Kaleem Aftab
Sunday 21 June 2015 10:58 BST

Senna, his Bafta-winning documentary about the Brazilian Formula 1 racing driver, established Asif Kapadia as one of Britain’s most audacious documentarians. Now the 43-year old filmmaker has turned his attention to another icon who died too young – Amy Winehouse.

The film is based on archive footage and interviews with Winehouse, but Kapadia also conducted over 100 interviews that combine to provide a compelling narrative around the life of Winehouse. The film charts her journey from teenage wannabe to pop star, drug-taker and music icon. It’s a far from hagiographic portrait as the director digs deep to unearth what caused the singer to be so troubled.

Universal Music instigated the documentary but they only secured the co-operation of the singer’s parents Mitch and Janis Winehouse when they signed up Kapadia as director. Mitch was a big fan of Senna and wanted the same treatment to be given to his daughter. Upon watching the completed film Mitch came to rue his decision as he felt he had been depicted as the villain. He brought in lawyers and limited changes were made, but they have not been sufficient to satisfy him. In recent weeks he has publicly condemned the film, claiming that Kapadia had an agenda to make him the anti-hero from the start.

Amy Winehouse celebrates her birthday in Amy, from the makers of Senna
Amy Winehouse celebrates her birthday in Amy, from the makers of Senna

The film certainly focuses on the fact that Mitch had an affair for seven years, before walking out on the family when Amy was nine, leaving her devastated. He remained an important figure in her life, despite spending much of his time working as a taxi driver. Kapadia suggests that Winehouse spent her life seeking his affirmation. Indeed when it was first suggested that the singer seek treatment for her drug addiction, she said it was up to her father, and as the lines of her monster hit “Rehab” revealed, he initially said that she didn’t have to go. The film also reveals that when she went to Jamaica to escape press attention after her battle with drugs, Mitch turned up with a reality television crew.

“I think this is a film about her and about what went on around her and the people around her,” says Kapadia. “We knew that there would be people who would not like certain things.”

He guffaws at the suggestion that he had an agenda: “How can you go into something with an agenda, if when I started, I didn’t know any of the story, or the people? I’m not in the music industry. It was just a question of talking to the people and seeing what the story was. It took a while for people to talk.”

Amy Winehouse playing the guitar in Amy
Amy Winehouse playing the guitar in Amy (Amy)

Talk they did. And it’s easy to see why they would. The director is beyond affable, and on the many occasions I’ve met him over the years, has always been extremely genteel. It’s hard to imagine him being unfair, or malicious. Others confirm as much. Gökhan Tiryaki, the cinematographer who shot the 2014 Cannes Palme d’Or winner Winter Sleep, has just finished shooting Kapadia’s next project, an adaptation of Kurban Said’s Azerbaijan-set novel Ali and Nino. He described how Kapadia would listen to the views of all departments and take them into consideration before deciding on the best course forward.

The judicial approach is not one that always works in his favour. The Hackney-born and raised director was asked to make a documentary as part of a portmanteau collection of films celebrating the London Olympics. I was slightly aghast at his contribution, as he seemed only to talk to those who had negative feelings about the Games.

“If you got that from the film, that was the opposite... I’m a massive supporter of the Games. I wanted to present the arguments that were going on at the time. The Games were the best time to be in London. Nobody knew what the legacy was, but having said that, right now there is no legacy. I still have an issue with the transport system. And where are all the new sports facilities?”

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Given his passion for London, it’s surprising that it took Kapadia so long to make a film in his home city. He shot his debut film The Warrior in India, The Return was set in America, and Far North was shot in the Arctic Circle, while Senna featured a globetrotting Brazilian. “A big part of my filmmaking is that I can go somewhere new and, visually, be excited by it. I was very aware of the fact that I hadn’t made a film in London. I never found the right script or the right subject. All the screenplays I read felt too small.”

Amy sated this desire. “This film became about music, art, north London, the world we live in. I lived in Camden, Primrose Hill and Kentish Town for 10 years. I walked through the area every day. I was intrigued by the idea that this story was going on just along the road and nobody stopped it. Somehow it was inevitable she would die young.”

Growing up, he was more into sports than movies. His Indian parents watched Bollywood films, but Kapadia would slink off, complaining that they were too long. Ironically, he now says that Amy is his Bollywood moment – a movie in which song lyrics are key. It will even have a special screening at Glastonbury on Thursday.

Amy Winehouse singing and playing guitar with a friend
Amy Winehouse singing and playing guitar with a friend (Amy)

His initial movie inspirations were not British. There was no-one making films here that reflected his outsider experience, he says. “I think at that time a lot of the Indian Asians being represented were cab drivers.” A major inspiration was Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, in particular the vernacular the director used. He then ventured into Chinese, Japanese and French films. The 1995 Vietnamese drama Cyclo by Tran Anh Hung remains a favourite.

For both Senna and Amy, Kapadia was approached as a director-for-hire. He has now set up a production company, On the Corner, with the producer of Senna, James Gay-Rees. Gay-Rees, the stepson of Mel Smith, of Alas Smith and Jones fame, first met Kapadia when the director was hired out of Newport Film School to work at his stepfather’s production company. The pair have just been announced as executive producers on Ronaldo, a documentary about the footballer, due in autumn 2015, though Kapadia will not direct this time (Anthony Wonke has that job).

“The subjects have to come with questions for me,” says Kapadia of his decision to take on Senna and Amy. “I don’t make films where I’m a massive fan. But at the same time it intrigued me, there are a lot of questions that I wanted to learn the answers to, and I hope those questions would be intriguing to a lot of the audience.”

Amy Winehouse. Parkway, Camden. February 5th 2004
Amy Winehouse. Parkway, Camden. February 5th 2004 (Jake Chessum)

I saw Amy having gleaned most of my Winehouse stories from the tabloids. I liked her music, but I didn’t know much about her life away from the drugs – and I didn’t know I was even interested to find out more. The documentary introduces a new side to Winehouse and is one of the most compelling, heartbreaking films I’ve seen. Kapadia points out humour in it, too, “I was surprised by how funny she was. She was very clever. If you just saw the last few years of her life, you didn’t know. I wasn’t aware of how amazing her lyrics were.

“Once you read the lyrics, you understand that all the answers are there. There is nothing in the film that isn’t already in the lyrics.”

‘Amy’ will be in cinemas from 3 July, following a nationwide preview on 30 June

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