POV: Tell us what it means to be a matador and what it means to be a female matador.
Gemma Cubero: Bullfighting started in Spain centuries ago as a way to celebrate activities of the royal family. Matadors became national heroes because of their courage and their ability to be in front of a bull. Most matadors came from a working-class background, and they came to symbolize the popular hero, especially at a time when working class people didn’t have a place in society. That tradition has continued in Spain and in Latin American countries. Being a matador is very rare and takes great skill and courage, and most people in those countries have great admiration for the matador.
Celeste Carrasco: The matador is a quintessential symbol of masculinity and power so, of course, at first women were not allowed in the arena.
Cubero: The first prohibition against women being in the ring was put in place in 1908. Before that, there had actually been groups of women who fought the bull together and who captured a big audience, but then the law forbade them to fight, because bullfighting was thought to be a dangerous profession and not proper for women.
That prohibition, which was enacted for moral reasons, was in place until 1974. And then in 1974, Angela Hernandez, who is actually in the film, decided that she wanted to become a matador. She was very young at the time, and she felt a passion for bullfighting. That’s when she realized she would have to take a case to the Spanish Supreme Court in order to enter the ring.
Angela won her case against the discrimination and, legally, women are allowed to fight. But there’s still a great amount of prejudice whenever a woman is in the ring, and that fascinated Celeste and me.
POV: Why did you choose to make a film about women matadors?
Cubero: We came up with the idea at the end of 1999, when we heard that the only well-known female matador at the time, Cristina Sánchez, was quitting. She complained that the other top matadors didn’t want to share the ring with her. Celeste and I read about this and we both thought about how when we were growing up in Spain we went to bullfights, but we never imagined that there could be a woman matador.
So we went back to Spain, and we found out through research that though other women wanted to be in the arena, they had not been allowed to be bullfighters because of the legal prohibition. We became interested in the topic, and we actually began the film as a historical piece. Later, we found Eva [Florencia] and Mari Paz [Vega] and the film came to focus on the two of them as characters.
POV: The tradition of bullfighting can evoke a variety of different reactions. Some love the sport and tradition. Others are repulsed by it and think it’s cruel. How do you feel about bullfighting?
Carrasco: A bullfight is a fascinating thing. It’s so intense, but it’s also a festive event. There’s music. People get dressed up in colorful outfits, and women wear flowers in their hair. But once it really begins, you see the sword and the blood from the bull, and the bullfighter may not be in control of the situation. It’s all very physical and intense. On the one hand, you want the bullfighter to do well; on the other hand, you suffer because the bull is suffering. It’s all very visceral, and as a spectator, you go through all these different feelings.
Sometimes it was hard to watch. But I was shooting it most of the time, and when you are behind the camera, you can get a little bit of distance from what’s going on. I’d really enjoy it at times — I’d forget about life and death, about the bull, about whether the whole thing was politically correct. I didn’t intellectualize it. I just felt it, and I just enjoyed it, and I think that’s what happens to the audience as well.
Cubero: I was never a pro-bullfighting person. I did grow up with it in Spain, much as an American grows up with baseball. It’s part of our language, part of who we are, but I was never really into it. What attracted me to the subject, though, was the realization that matadors really connect with the animals. Believe it or not, matadors have a great deal of respect for the animals and really love the animals. But, of course, bullfighting can also be very gruesome.
I don’t know how to explain it, but I understand what bullfighters find in the ring. There is something that happens when they are in front of the bull that they cannot find anywhere else. Still, for me, sometimes it was hard to be in the ring and watch what happened.
POV: Tell us about your two main characters. How are they different from each other? Why did you decide to follow the two of them?
Cubero: Just as there are different kinds of male matadors, there are different kinds of female matadors. When we began the film, we went to Spain and interviewed several women who were just starting out. We wanted to find someone who had a dramatic story, because this film was not necessarily going to be about bullfighting. It was going to be about what it’s like to enter an arena where you’re not allowed or wanted and what happens when you do that.
We met Eva [Florencia] on our first location scouting trip, and we liked her right away. She was an outsider with a great amount of passion who was jumping into something completely unknown. It was also clear that she was going to have a tremendous amount of difficulty, because she was a foreigner — from Italy — and she was a woman. Her parents were also having a really hard time understanding her passion and didn’t really approve of it. We saw that she would be a great character.
We also met Mari Paz [Vega] that same year, but it took us a lot longer to get to know her. Mari Paz is from Spain, and she really wants to be taken seriously as a matador, without being thought of in terms of her gender. What was fascinating about her was that she came from a working-class background. She was from a family where her father and five brothers had all tried to be matadors, but none of them made it. And they were all supportive of her, and her brothers work for her and live their dream through her. Mari Paz is the only professional female matador right now, and she’s successful in Latin America, but she’s still trying to get to a higher level as a matador in Spain.
So we have Eva, the outsider and then we have Mari Paz, whose family understood bullfighting and supported her. Eva, for us, was very much the dreamer, the romantic one, and Mari Paz was the pragmatic one, the one making a living from it.
POV: What is it about bullfighting that captures the Spanish audience? What is its significance and its appeal?
Carrasco: Bullfighting is a show. It’s a spectacle. It’s entertainment, in a certain way, like a soccer game or the opera. But it’s more complex than that, too. And what happens can be very unexpected, because there is a possibility that the bullfighter can die. It’s the only spectacle where you can see life and death right there.
POV: Our image of the matador is a romantic but very masculine figure. How does a woman carve out an identity in what is seen as a traditionally masculine sport? What is the passion that drives women to be matadors?
Cubero: I think all matadors when they’re in front of a bull can really express their true personalities. Through making the film, we realized that women want to be matadors for the same reasons that men do. That was a huge discovery for us, as filmmakers. There’s something in the ring that really makes gender dissipate. The technique and the dance are the same for women as they are for men. They are in the ring alone with the bull. They tell us that when you’re in front of the bull, you just have to be yourself and show who you are.
POV: American audiences may be new to bullfighting in general. What do you want them to take away from this story?
Carrasco: I think ours is not a film that glorifies the sport. It’s more about the tradition of bullfighting, which is still alive, and still the same as it ever was. That tradition has a sense of mystique to it that’s very powerful, and I hope that American audiences can understand that and see why Spain has kept the tradition of bullfighting to this day.
But mostly, I hope that audiences really connect with Eva and Mari Paz, with their passion and with their determination. You don’t need to understand exactly why they want to be matadors, but I hope you can be compelled by their stories.