WEEKEND OF A CHAMPION – MIFF Review

WEEKEND OF A CHAMPION
Dir.: Frank Simon
Running time: 90minutes

Screening at Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF)

The late 60s and 70s were tumultuous times for motor sport, particularly in Formula 1. A spate of bloody and tragic deaths (viz: Gilles Villenueve, Jochen Rindt, Francois Cevert) and near-misses (Nikki Lauda) had F1 tagged as the most dangerous sport in the world. Add to the mix the heady combination of drivers with rock-star looks, the playboy lifestyle and the glitz and glamour of venues such as Monaco and San Marino, and the allure of both driver and the sport was almost inescapable. It against this background that Weekend of a Champion takes place.

Filmed by Frank Simon and saved from destruction by producer Roman Polanski, Weekend Of A Champion follows legendary driver (now Sir) Jackie Stewart and his friend/fan Polanski around Monaco in 1971 in a fly-on-the-wall style doco that despite only showing at MIFF for the first time in 2013, was arguably ahead of its time back in 1971 (indeed, Weekend Of A Champion won the Best Documentary gong at 1972’s Berlinale Film Festival)

Shot in 16mm, the documentary goes behind the scenes with Stewart and the Tyrelll team from Thursday practice through to Sunday’s race. Weekend Of A Champion also gives viewers an insight into the preparation for a race that, although bereft of the technological advancements available to teams today (telemetry, rev-limiters, semi-automatic gearboxes, active suspension), is just as prescient as Stewart discusses tactics, set up and technique with the legendary Ken Tyrrell, team engineers, mechanics and his teammate Francois Cevert in much the same way that Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton would with Christian Horner Eric Boullier and Ross Brawn today.

As well as all-areas access for the team’s preparations, Weekend Of A Champion features a breathtaking on-board camera lap with Sir Jackie tearing Monaco a new one as he caresses the Tyrrell Ford (the aural grunt of that V10 Ford was worth the price of admission alone for this closet petrol head) around a Monaco circuit much different to the one fans under 30 would be familiar with today. The Saturday morning breakfast scene with Sir Jackie explaining the finer points of driving a Formula 1 beast around Monaco at breakneck speed to Polanski is spellbinding for both F1 junkie and Polanski cineasts with minimal interest in the sport alike, and is a definite highlight of this film. Indeed, Sir Jackie’s tutorial takes the term “to the edge of the envelope” from the realm of cliche into terrifying reality.

Adrenalin fixes aside, the quieter moments of the film – such as Roman and Sir Jackie’s 2011 epilogue and Sir Jackie and wife Helen counting off how many of their friends have died behind the wheel illustrate the chilling reality of how unsafe F1 was compared to today with brilliantly understated gravitas that no sledgehammer could execute as effectively by comparison.

Weekend of a Champion is up there with sporting documentary films such as Senna (2010), When We Were Kings (1996) and Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001). For fans of F1 it is a delightfully nostalgic trip down memory lane to the pre-Ecclestone commercialisation days, while for fans of documentary cinema – and cinema in general – will be rewarded with an entertaining and informative 90 minute story showcasing an insight into what drives (pardon the pun) an elite sportsperson in an era when death and survival were measured in tenths of seconds and millimetres.

Thoroughly enjoyable and wholly entertaining. See it while you can!

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