Weekend of a Champion (London Film Festival 2013)
The original Weekend of a Champion came out in 1972, barely to be seen again, let alone receive a victory lap. The modest documentary tackled two not-so-modest figures: Formula 1 driver Jackie Stewart and film-maker Roman Polanski. Four decades later, the film is digitally restored, with a 20-minute coda of Stewart and Polanski reflecting on how their lives have since changed.
The 1972 material is a simple video diary of Stewart preparing for a race in Monaco, with Polanski somewhere between an investigative journalist and nosey friend. The pair’s dynamic is fascinating, not just for Stewart’s charismatic deconstruction of his racing techniques, but for a rare glimpse of Polanski’s lighter, human side – one that’s not reflected in his films, nor his criminal record.
One particularly charming moment involves Stewart using his finger to race a packet of butter across a table to illustrate when to break. The low-key moment only works because it occurs just off the race track in an era fraught with numerous racing fatalities. In retrospect, the lack of protective measures is shocking; crowds stand by the road without any barriers in place.
Weekend of a Champion is a strange discovery, given it encompasses decades-old footage that wasn’t as sought after as, say, The Day the Clown Cried. It’s also unlikely to fully satisfy anyone without an interest in Formula 1 or Polanski. Even those curious by the latter should note none of the director’s eventful life is questioned, and nor does Stewart visit the set of Repulsion to attempt shooting a nightmare sequence.
Perhaps tellingly, much of the documentary is worthless without the 2011 footage. With four decades of hindsight, Stewart adds insight into the sport’s old philosophy, while also shining light on how he hid his own insecurities during filming – even the champion of the documentary’s title felt beaten down by the world.
Personally, the most surprising aspect is that Stewart and Polanski are still friends. They’re both carried by strong egos in respective fields, yet seem to be opposites. When Stewart cuts himself shaving, he jokingly suggests it should feature in a Polanski film. However, the real allusion comes from an admittance that Formula 1 is claustrophobic – spinning round the same track, trapped under multiple seatbelts. So based on the running theme of Polanski’s career, it seems the sport’s dangerous aspects are actually a lifetime obsession for both figures.
As Stewart puts it: against all logic, sitting behind the wheels makes all the pain disappear.
Weekend of a Champion is part of the London Film Festival’s “Thrill” strand. Screening information can be found here.