Neither Mari Paz Vega nor Eva Florencia is unique. As related in Ella Es El Matador (She Is the Matador), the new documentary airing on PBS' POV (Point of View) series, there is a long and surprising history of women fighting in the Spanish bullring — and fighting to have the chance to do so. For all of Spain’s traditional machismo and the image of the matador as a quintessentially male figure, women have always wanted to fight bulls. A 1908 law banning women from bullfighting is testament to women’s determination to perform in the ring and not just shout “Olé!” from the stands.
But if not unique, Vega and Florencia remain rarities in the world of contemporary Spanish bullfighting. Vega, a Spaniard, is currently the world’s only professional female matador and is on the verge of achieving top ranking. Florencia, a young runaway from Italy, is a neophyte driven by a childhood dream. Both women must deal with the legacies of sexism in Spanish bullfighting — condescending male colleagues, promoters who won’t book them in the best arenas, audiences attached to the rich symbolism and pop-star status of the male matador. Yet the passions that propel Vega and Florencia are similar to those of male bullfighters — a drive to express themselves in a grand and peculiarly Spanish rite as theatrical as it is bloody and as integral to Spanish culture as it is mysterious to much of the rest of the world.
Gemma Cubero and Celeste Carrasco's Ella Es El Matador (She Is the Matador) has its national broadcast premiere on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2009, at 10 p.m. on PBS as part of the 22nd season of POV. (Check local listings.) American television's longest-running independent documentary series, POV is the winner of a Special Emmy for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking. The series continues on Tuesdays through Sept. 22, and returns with special presentations on Nov. 11 and Dec. 30.
Is bullfighting sport, dance, theater or blood ritual? Ella Es El Matador Matador (She Is the Matador) reveals bullfighting to be all of these. Through interviews shot in vérité style interspersed with archival footage illustrating the history of women in bullfighting, the film offers a fascinating window on the highly choreographed and deadly match between bull and human that remains enormously popular in Spain, even as it is reviled by many in an age of animal rights. (Outside Spain, bullfighting is popular only in Portugal and Latin America and, interestingly, in those places it is more open to women matadors.) In explaining their motives, Vega and Florencia express the mystical hold that bullfighting has over Spaniards, what Florencia calls “something beyond the cruelty . . . a connection between man and beast.”
Vega also speaks of a magical connection to the bull — and to death. "Without the bull there is nothing. . . . We all believe the bull is born to die in the ring. Keep in mind that you're giving him a chance to fight for his life. It's a fight between you and the bull. Either one can win the battle." In fact, while the odds are stacked against the bull, the matador faces real danger. In the course of the filming of Ella Es El Matador, Vega is gored in the thigh — and it isn't her first injury. She shows the stoic courage required of matadors at such moments. Later, she refers ruefully to a bullfighting tradition that says that with each goring, a little of the matador's courage seeps out.
Vega is the daughter of a once-aspiring bullfighter, and each of her five brothers trained to be matadors. It was her brothers' example that inspired her, at nine years old, to face her "first calf." Yet like their father before them, her brothers failed to rise higher than apprentice bullfighters, while Vega has succeeded in becoming a matador and is poised to join the ring's top ranks. "To be able to dominate the bull and create something beautiful and to see the people embrace your performance, that's why I love being a matador," she says.
For the young Florencia — and for her disconcerted family bullfighting arrived like a bolt out of the blue, or "an arrow to the heart," as she puts it. It struck the moment when, as a little girl from Tuscany who knew nothing of Spain, much less bullfighting, beyond what she saw in books and magazines, she was transfixed by "a picture of a bullfighter executing a beautiful pass." She decided then and there to become a matador, a childish ambition her family naturally tried to dismiss.
When, at 16, Florencia asked her family to send her to Spain, they just as naturally refused. So she ran off to Seville to pursue the difficult life of an apprentice bullfighter. (It takes 25 sanctioned matches to qualify as a matador.) When her family finally accepted that Florencia's passion was no whim, but "something that had profoundly entered my soul," as she says, they began attending bullfights and learning about their daughter's obsession. The recollections and musings of Florencia's father, Domenico, reveal the struggles of an outsider to grasp the allure of bullfighting.
In the period documented by Ella Es El Matador (She is the Matador), the greatest threat to the women, or at least to their dreams, turns out to be not the bulls and their horns, but the patriarchal regime that guards bullfighting's masculine image. Vega's real challenge, despite all her success, is getting the chance fight in the prestigious arenas that would vault her to prominence; Florencia's challenge is simply getting the 25 official matches she needs to realize her dream.
"Bullfighting is the quintessential symbol of masculinity and bravery in Spanish culture," say filmmakers Cubero and Carrasco, both born and raised in Spain. "Making this documentary about female matadors means changing this symbol and shifting the gender roles that have been defined for centuries. We want to open a window for viewers to enter into a unique world without judgment, while exploring the universal struggle of our two protagonists."