Interview: Gemma Cubero and Celeste Carrasco.
News of the controversy surrounding Sanchez's career and premature retirement caught the attention of filmmakers Gemma Cubero and Celeste Carrasco, who met the year before, in San Francisco, while Carrasco was working for filmmaker Lourdes Portillo. (1) Carrasco introduced Cubero to the director, and the pair went on to work together on Portillo's next film, Senorita Extraviada (Missing Young Woman) (2001), on the killings of young women in Mexico, before embarking a joint project on women in bullfighting. As Cubero relates:
When we heard about women bullfighters, and we heard that Cristina Sanchez was retiring, we were in San Francisco, and so we were far away from our own culture, and I think that really caught our attention, like wow.... I mean, we knew about Cristina, but we didn't know anything about women in bullfighting.
The pair traveled to Spain to begin researching--the start of a decade-long journey into the world of the corrida, and the lives of female bullfighters Maripaz Vega and Eva Florencia--and the result was their 2009 film, Ella Es el Matador. (2) The film offers an examination of gender issues in contemporary bullfighting, through an intimate portrait of the two young woman, one an experienced fighter struggling for recognition and opportunities, the other, a novice guided by her love of the bull.
An ancient practice that has been traced to Minoan civilization, bullfighting has been linked to arena combat, spectacle, religious cults, and the nobility of both man and beast for over 4,000 years. Throughout the last three centuries, the tradition of the corrida has served as an iconic element of Spanish and Latin American culture, standing as a quintessential symbol of masculinity and cultural heritage, its rituals virtually unchanged over time. In recent decades vocal animal rights activism has raised outcry against la corrida, resulting in a recent ban on the sport in Catalonia, which will take effect this year. (3) Traditional bullfighting, however--a thriving industry throughout Spain, Portugal, Mexico, and other former Spanish colonies in Latin America--generates revenues of over 1.3 billion euro each year in Spain alone, in plazas ranging from small local venues to the 20,000-seat arenas of Madrid and Barcelona, suggesting strong economic pressure to retain the status quo in areas of popularity. (4)
The corrida draws its life from a complex constellation of male power and conquest, blended with grace, precision, and the spectacle of breathtaking pageantry. It is mastery ... beauty ... reverence ... a celebration of dominance and control--not merely over nature, in the form of the bull, but over the more formidable enemies of physical limitations and fear. That status, however, is not free of complexities and conflict, as the bullfighting tradition has sought to stand fast in the face of rapid and ongoing social change. While for many, the spectacle represents the interweaving of history, performance art, and national identity, for others, la corrida represents the archaic notions of machistas--carefully following the footprints of traditional male chauvinism, subscribing to myths of virility, and displaying a synthesis of respect and contempt for the feminine--with a near-exclusion of women, and singular, seemingly unyielding, construction of gender roles. Bullfighting is gendered spectacle, and yet, the gender showcased by la corrida is as complex as the sport, itself--embodying a tension in which men display a resplendent gracefulness, women don an air of confident dominance, and the meanings of both blend and vanish before the watchful eyes of the crowds.
The role of women in bullfighting has long been contested, particularly in Spain, where female matadors have appeared since the 17th century. Cubero and Carrasco told of uncovering documentation that bullfighting had even served as a hobby for early Spanish nuns. In the early 20th century, however, legal controversy over the status of women in the plaza shaped the trajectories of many notable matadoras. The legendary Maria Salome Rodriguez Tripiona, known as La Reverte, was one of Spain's most popular female matadors until women were banned from the sport in 1908, at which time, she retired and returned as a man--Augustin Rodriguez--to continue his/her career. After the ban was lifted, matadora Juanita Cruz fought in Spain until the country once again banned women from the arena in 1930, and went on to continue her career in South America, while Peruvian Conchita Citron, known as "La Diosa Rubia" ("The Blonde Goddess"), found fame outside of Spain during the ban, fighting in over 400 events in South and Central America and Europe, before retiring in 1949. (5)
A lawsuit, brought by Angela Hernandez in 1974, reversed Spain's longstanding ban on women in bullfighting and opened the door for women such as the well-known Maribel Atienzar, and the woman whose premature retirement provided the impetus for Cubero and Carrasco's film, Cristina Sanchez, to once again pursue careers in bullfighting.
Because of its focus on a practice so fraught with animal rights controversy in the United States, finding support for the film presented challenges for the first-time directors, adding to the extended production timeline that accompanies many documentary films. As Cubero relates:
We knew from the beginning that it would be hard, precisely because of bullfighting, and also in Spain, it's controversial in some ways because of the women aspects. Also, some people don't support bullfighting because it reminds them of some kind of very traditional right-wing image of Spain. That's changing, but it's in the minds of a lot of people. Was it really worth it to do something about women? We got that a lot. And then, in the States, there was not an understanding of what bullfighting is. There's no history, or any kind of natural understanding of what it is. Then the animal aspect was a big challenge. We knew that we couldn't go to a lot of funders that, you know, you could go to if you were doing a human rights piece.
Over time, the film received funding from PBS's Latina Public Broadcasting, as well as from the Pacific Pioneer Fund, along with critical support from award-winning writer, Suzanne LaFetra, and from entrepreneur and philanthropist Sheila C. Johnson. Additional support from the Tribeca All Access Program, Women Make Movies, and PBS's Point of View (POV), all of which responded to the issue of women matadors struggling to attain gender equality in their profession-of-choice.
Less than two years after its premiere, Ella Es el Matador was screened internationally, from Telluride to Chennai, and received major awards from Tribeca All Access, the Women in Direction International Film Festival, and the Medina del Campo Film Festival.
I spoke with Cubero and Carrasco about their film, and its exploration into the world of la corrida and the two women whose lives and careers are the focus of the film. For both, issues of gender and access were key to their interests, but among their discoveries in the process of filming was that those issues were far more resistant to definition and judgment than they initially realized. We talked at length about questions of masculinity, femininity, passion, and power, as they relate to the bullfight, the wider culture, and the intimate relationship between the matador and the bull. In considering gender, we reflected on the extent to which gender roles are at play, or whether, perhaps, the bullring creates a kind of liminal space, where traditional gender categories are blurred:
Cynthia Miller: I'd like to try to pin down what we mean when we talk about masculinity and femininity in relation to la corrida. Could you talk for a couple minutes about your sense of what Spanish or Latin American masculinity is? In thinking about Maripaz and Eva, and what they bring to bullfighting, in what ways are those qualities something different?
Celeste Carrasco: I think it's very complex. It's subject matter that, even as filmmakers, took us a while to figure it out. I don't think there's an answer--a clear answer--to your questions. But I think you brought up a really good point when you talk about liminal space. I think it's true. Something we found out with great surprise is that bullfighters are in this space where you cannot tell gender--gender disappears--and it's fascinating when that happens. The men need to connect with their artistic, aesthetic side, while women must find a very male sense of confidence and power. Watching the bullfight, what you see, then, is the graceful dance of human and animal, life and death--not male or female. This comes, not from the danger, but of something more essential--more fundamental--not man or woman, but matador.
Gemma Cubero: We all have parts of masculinity, and femininity, and we're androgynous, and we're so many other things. Masculinity in Spain and Latin America is especially highlighted in bullfighting. The symbol of the bullfighter in Spanish culture--because the bullfighting is on foot, not on horseback--really came out of being a poor person, and showing a lot of courage. I think the matador was, for many years, a popular hero. The majority are men; women are really, really rare. I think bullfighting is so complicated because masculinity and femininity are combined in it. The bull is supposed to be the masculine symbol, the symbol of fertility ... bravery.... It's the beast. The man is supposed to be the feminine side. But, it is true that because of their courage and because of what they do, we think they are really masculine. I think the masculinity side has to do with being able to show courage and being able to deal with fear, and also the fighting aspect of it--you are able to fight a beast. You don't see that anywhere today.
A huge part of bullfighting is that you do it publically--it's the spectacle. You don't do it in your home, you don't do it in your farm--you do that to train--but what really makes the difference is to do it in front of an audience. And the audience is really used to seeing the male play that role. So even if there are feminine qualities--its aspects of dance, how they move, their outfits--it doesn't affect their masculinity. They wear pink! These masculine men wear pink! Even in our film, Maripaz's brother is wearing a pink outfit--not just the pink socks, but a pink outfit, so I think that there's this femininity and masculinity that's always there.
CM: So then, you think that men also bring an aspect of their own femininity to the corrida?
CC: Without being aware. I think it's very unconscious. I've seen male bullfighters being very, very feminine, both inside and outside of the arena. And I think there is a technique in bullfighting that uses this femininity--it's the aesthetic of bullfighting. I'm not quite sure that they are aware that they are bringing something feminine. Actually, if you ask them, they'd probably get a little bit upset about that. So, it's funny, and it's partly because of the suit and the shoes they have, and the stockings, and ... the bullfight puts you in a dance with the bull. You imitate a dancer, but that doesn't mean necessarily that you are being feminine. Is a male dancer more feminine? I don't know. I'm trying to think ... in flamenco, for instance, to what extent a flamenco dancer has these feminine sides in the dance, and it's a lot!
CM: Well, they definitely bring a creative, graceful side to it.
CC: Right, but is that only given to women? You know, that's the point; that's why we talk about femininity in bullfighting. We have never seen a women bullfighter before--we don't have a history of seeing. You know, a lot of people, when they watch the film, don't even know that women were bullfighters. Even in Spain--well, not in Spain, because we have Cristina Sanchez, who became very popular--but when we took the film to other countries, they were just amazed that women actually wanted to bullfight. But in terms of what femininity brings to bullfighting, and from the point of view of a female matador, I don't think that it brings anything different than what a male bullfighter brings, and that's the most important thing.
GC: When a woman enters bullfighting and wants to be a matador, I don't think they want to be any different than a man. They don't come in and say, "I'm going to change bullfighting, and I'm going to bring in my feminine qualities." I think they just are who they are. They learn the profession and they just want to be in front of the bull. There's just nothing that makes them happier than doing that, and they can't replace it with anything else. They just go in, and they learn. The way they train, the way they dress, the way they live, it's the same as a man. The passion is the same--the obstacles are different. Because of the history, because of gender. But the passion, why they want to be bullfighters, the love they have for the animal, is the same. Women have to train really, really hard because they have this baggage--you have to train harder to prove that you can do it. I think gender really plays a big role in terms of the obstacles and the judgment they have to fight against. They don't have to fight against the bull; they have to fight against the bull and all these other barriers that are in the minds of the audience, and the matadors, and the system. And I think judgment can be harder than a fierce bull.
CM: Do you feel that Eva or Maripaz also carried emotional or psychological obstacles inside themselves that they needed to overcome in order to be matadors?
GC: I think the fact that they don't have role models ahead of them is huge. For me, I was like, why would you want to do this profession? You have to risk your life, you have to be so fit, there are so many things that need to happen for you to succeed. I think every bullfighter is different because we all have a different consciousness, so it's not like all the bullfighters think the same way, of feel the same way; everybody is different. But I often wondered about the fact that you're entering into a profession where there's no room for you to begin with. I think it takes someone really, really strong--emotionally, psychologically--you can be very passionate, but once you reach those obstacles, wow.... I really admire Maripaz because she's so strong psychologically and emotionally, and she really believes in herself. Eva is an amazing person. She had the dream, and the power, and the strength, but I think it got to a point that she had to deal with the business side, the money side, and she didn't have the support around her to keep going. So I think the emotional side is huge for a bullfighter, you can be very physically fit, but if you're not emotionally fit....
CM: That would be the same for men as for women?
GC: I think so. This is something I've been thinking about since we started talking. I think for a man, you have a lot of history backing you. You could be the popular hero. You could succeed, you don't have to think, "My God, there are no women who ever were the popular hero." So, I think the challenges are super-hard. I think a lot of men, for instance, Maripaz's brothers, could never make it. It's a profession that is extremely difficult for men, too, but you don't have a history of prohibition, you don't have a history of mockery, and you can go to the encyclopedia of bullfighting and look at hundreds of bullfighters that have made it--you have a map. With a woman, you don't have a map--you have to make your map. For me, it was shocking that I didn't know anything about the history of women bullfighting. Juanita Cruz is known within the bullfighting people, but you look at the encyclopedia of bullfighting, and there's only a few pages dedicated to women. I don't know how aware they are of this--Maripaz and Eva probably could not tell you--but for me, it's important to know that other women have tried, and what were their challenges, because you can make more sense of what's going on--what's happening to you. So, for the men, it's very, very hard, but you know that maybe you can make it; but for the women, they really want to make it, but there's not that track record.
They say that a bullring is like a mirror of society, and that women have always had a place in the ring--they were the wives, the mothers, the lovers, those who were there waiting for the fighter to succeed or show his qualities, but they were never protagonists. So the woman matador comes in, and what happens, for the first few minutes the audience is completely checking her out, and wondering: Why is she here? Is she capable? Is she able to do it? Someone like Maripaz, she's able to really be there and be a bullfighter and show all those qualities. It's then that the audience really values that a woman is there--and that makes a male really nervous. That's just my opinion, but I think that's really a big challenge. They need to work harder to show their qualities.
CM: So, do women matadors have to work hard to put away their femininity and become androgynous, covering up obvious physical traits, cultivating a game face, etc.? Do you think that Maripaz and Eva made an effort to not be seen as feminine?
CC: Oh yes! They need to behave like a bullfighter, whatever that means, and if that means to be distanced from what we all accept as being a woman, the answer is yes, sadly. They are surrounded by male energy, so it's kind of tough to be in the middle of that atmosphere, which is so masculine.... And also, because we associate being feminine with being more delicate, or being more exposed to feelings, and so on, and that's not very welcome in bullfighting. You need to be tough.
GC: Yeah, Maripaz is a very masculine model. I don't think they think of themselves like "Oh, I'm a woman; therefore I have some qualities that are feminine that I'm going to bring to the fight. I don't' think they think that way. I think it's like, "I want to try to be a matador."
For example, when you get into the bullfighting suit, there's a whole ritual about how you do it, and you learn to do that also, with men. It's not something fake that you do; it's such an intimate moment that what you're really seeing is an expression of who they are--of their personality. I don't think they're thinking in terms of gender there. I think they're just really focused on getting dressed. But the whole formality is very well-established, and well-established by men. I'm sure there are more feminine qualities in the way they dress, but you can't really tell. Eva would wear the virgins of her hometown in Italy, so there were personal touches, but in the way they get dressed and the way they act, I think they're really being themselves. By the time they fight, they've really learned the whole practice of bullfighting, where I don't think there is much room for change. The passes are very well established, how you do everything in the bullfight is measured, completely programmed; you know what you need to do, and there's not much room to innovate. But those are good questions to ask them, like, in which way their femininity is expressed. I don't think I've ever seen them cry in the bullring. I've seen their disappointments, or their feelings, maybe after, but in the plaza, there's a very established way to act and be professional and that's what they do.
In this profession there are a lot of things that are gendered--feminine and masculine--and you can see that, but there's also a lot of the practice is just the way it is, and you just do it. The way you wear this or the way you do that. The whole ritual is like a dance, it's like ballet. A ballet dancer just dances. Well, that's not true, because there are feminine and masculine roles in ballet, but here it's kind of like, gender is everywhere, but at the same time, what they do has no gender.
CM: What's interesting here is that we're talking about gender being everywhere but nowhere. Maybe that's because the gender of la corrida was always unquestioned--never really challenged--so there's no need for wiggle room or interpretation about being male or female. It was always unquestioningly male.
CC: Absolutely! The only reference that women have for bullfighting is a male bullfighter. You learn that technique, you learn to be a bullfighter, and it's a man teaching you. You go to see bullfights and you don't see other women. There's masculine influence in all that for a female matador, even though your personality comes out.
GC: The male interpretation is definitely the one that has been there. For instance, look at the history, when Maria Salome, "La Reverte," comes out as a man. She fights as a woman; you see paintings of her, and she looks a little masculine, but then after the prohibition, she wants to come back, and says 'my name is not Maria Salome, my name is Augustin Rodriguez, I'm a man.' The way she comes back into the fight, she goes the whole way to look super-masculine. And we know she died as a man. For her, there was no room to be who she was; she had to go to the extreme.
Now, I think Maripaz is very feminine when she fights. I think she's both--she's masculine and feminine. I think that the bull really doesn't distinguish your gender. If you're a man or a woman you have to really perform and know what you're doing in front of the bull. At that moment, when they're in front of the bull, I think nothing else exists. It's just this person and the animal and what's really defining their gender is everything around them--the plaza, the audience, the eyes that are looking at them--but in what happens between them and the animal, I don't think there really is gender. I don't think the bull would think "Oh, that's a feminine move." But it's true--the dance was established by men. Like with Maripaz, when you see her in the ring with a bunch of men, fighting, I don't want to be crude, but the only reason why you would think she is a woman is because she doesn't have her 'parts'--you know? She just looks like one more. She's super fit, she's super good. For her, the way she does everything, the way she goes about fighting, it's identical.
I don't think the bull can distinguish gender, but there's a lot of 'reading' that goes on between the bullfighter and the animal--part of the training of the bullfighter is getting to know the animal as a species, how they behave and how they are, how they grow. They go and see them in the countryside a lot. The bull is very different in the countryside from in the plaza, but the bullfighter's job is to get to know the animal, the breed, every one has a different quality. So you have to learn all this, and then the bull is taken in a truck after five or six years into the plaza, and once the bull is in an enclosed arena, you never know. The only surprise element is really the bull. Everything else is so set-up. So the bullfighter has to know what kind of bull he or she is going to fight. Then the job of the bullfighter is to bring out the best qualities of the bull in front of the audience. So, when the bull comes out in the plaza, everybody's job is to watch the behavior of that bull. I think the bull knows when you know what you're doing and when you don't know, because of the way you are, but I don't think they know if you're a man or a woman. Maripaz and Eva have talked a lot about this--they really get to know the bull by looking into their eyes and seeing how they behave, and their job is to bring out its best qualities. This is ironic, because then they kill it, right? But they bring the best qualities of the bull, they know how the bull is breathing, is it going to be strong enough to make it to the next stage, and all that. They get into this trance with the animal. And to me, that skill has no gender. You need to know how to do it. There are men that don't have that skill that are fighting, but if you're a woman and you don't know how to do that, then uh! You shouldn't be here. But again, we go back to the judgment. Judgment is fierce for women, because in the minds of many, they're not supposed to be there.
CM: Given their position as female matadors, do they find that people around them question other aspects of their femininity--their sexual orientation? How does being a woman in a "man's profession" affect their identities as women?
GC: You know, as a matador, if you have a really serious relationship, people think that the bull might get jealous.
CC: But then, there is a part of it that is related to sexuality, I think. It's more complex. It gives another layer to the whole thing, because of the relationship to the bull. If you are a man, it's more accepted than if you are a woman fighting with a bull. It has--this is very ancestral--it has this sexual connotation. There is this closeness with the animal, and the animal being the male, and you being the female.
CM: That's really fascinating to me--the idea of the bull being jealous--the bull cast as lover.
GC: That's true, because the bull demands that kind of attention. Not the bull itself, but the whole system. The bull is their love. That's why Eva says in the film, "The bull takes my breath away." The bull takes everything; it fills everything for them. It takes such a focused mind to be able to do this. There is the archetype of the matador that is very solitary, and romantic, and very focused. They have no mental space for romance. And I think, also, in order to be in front of such an animal, you do have to be super-focused, and your mind has to be very clear, so it's kind of like a monk in a way. You don't drink alcohol.... You have to be really clear about what you're going to do, and very focused, but there are excellent bullfighters, like Enrique Ponce, he's a phenomenal bullfighter, and he has a wife.
It's okay for a male matador to have lovers. It's common, and they're not going to judge you for that.... After fights, it's not uncommon for matadors to have a lot of women waiting for them at the hotel. So, the whole thing of being sexually active, it's normal, it's a "given." No one questions that. They will not say, "Oh, that matador isn't training really hard because he has slept with women, or because he has a lot of lovers." No, no, no ... It's like "Whoa, that's really macho." For a woman, it's like, she will be a whore.
Maripaz has to be very, very careful. I don't think she's wanting to date anybody and have that kind of life, but it's a tough choice that you need to make. It's a life of sacrifice in many ways--physical sacrifice, emotional sacrifice--but if you're a woman, you pretty much can't have relationships. Cristina Sanchez revealed who she was with at the very end of her career, and married her husband after she retired. I can't imagine what that would be like to say, "Oh, why not get married," and keep bullfighting as a married woman. That would be interesting to see! Juanita Cruz was married to her manager, but you can't be dating. Well, you could if you wanted to, but people would think that you're not focused, that you're not taking the profession seriously. It's so unfair, because the men do--they have their wives waiting for them in their hotel rooms, or their lovers, or it's okay that they have ten girlfriends. It's double-edged for women: You cannot have a relationship because of the judgment, and if you don't have a relationship, people might question you, and think you're too masculine. So women in bullfighting have to be so careful; they're so guarded.
The thing is, we didn't want to focus on that in the film, because we wanted to portray their passion. That's not who they are--they're not defined by who they're dating or who they love--they really are in love with the animal, and it's almost like the animal takes over.
CM: Speaking of that kind of romantic passion for the bull, we see that most fully expressed in the film through Eva. There is a very strong sense of poetics in so much of the way she seemed to relate to bullfighting and the bull, such as when refers to the bull as "The guardian of her dreams." So, speaking of gender differences, is this idiosyncratic to her? If you could ever get a man to talk about his feelings about bullfighting, would he express his relationship with the bull, or his feelings about bullfighting, similarly? Do you have any thoughts about that?
CC: It's probably harder to find out how men feel; they don't express it in the same way. But I definitely think that they share that thinking with Eva. Bullfighters definitely have this romantic way of looking at life and nature, and they are definitely in love with the bull, which is something very striking, as well. They definitely love the bull, in a religious way, and it's very intense. Eva is very articulate, of course. But I definitely think that Maripaz shares the same feelings towards the bull and bullfighting and the profession itself. It's probably harder to find a man saying that a bull "takes their breath away," but no, they're artists. They have this kind of mind--they're very creative--they have this kind of sensibility with art and so on, which you don't expect a bullfighter to have. There are a lot of bullfighters that are great writers, for instance. A few of them write poetry, and so on. You wouldn't expect that.
GC: I don't think so. I think probably they feel that, but no.... I mean, Maripaz will not talk in that way either. I think it's just her personality. One very important thing that I learned by making this film is that you bullfight the way you are, so while bullfighting is a performance, in that performance you need to be truly yourself. So, Eva is like that romantic archetype in a way. I don't know if Belmonte (6), who was a huge bullfighter, would talk in those ways, but the image of the romantic bullfighter is there. Eva is so articulate, she's able to put words to her feelings, but I know that Maripaz doesn't talk in those ways. For her, it's something more practical. She does feel that intensity, you know, but she wouldn't express it that way. Eva has that quality of expressing herself.
CM: So, tell me about that beautiful scene where Eva's fighting the cow naked under the moonlight. Where did that come from? Tell me about that?
CC: That was Eva's idea. And you know, that comes from way back. Bullfighters were very low in society--people who had no money at all, and had no access to bullfight. In order to bullfight you have to be in front of the bull. If not, there's no way that you learn it, right? So they jumped fences in the countryside where the cows were at night, so nobody could see them, and they did it naked, because the cow can pierce your clothes and you can end up without your clothes, if that happens. So that's why they did it naked and fought in the moonlight in the countryside, because you cannot see anything in the countryside. That's the story behind it. And also, it proves that you are really, really brave, because you are by yourself with the animal and it's the purest experience you can have. That's been in books and biographies of great bullfighters forever, like Belmonte, and so on. So Eva, who is a very romantic character, always wanted to do that. It was the most intimate expression of her relationship with bullfighting; deeply private, about movement, and emotion, and her identity as a woman and a matador. At that time she was already thinking about quitting, but we didn't know that. She said "I would like to do this once in my life, and I would like you guys to shoot it." So we helped her to organize it, we helped her find the cow and the area in Andalusia to do it. And she just did it! It was a very unique experience for her. She remembers it as one of the most beautiful experiences she had in bullfighting, and for us it was very intimate. Also, we didn't know what to expect. Technically it was the worst situation to shoot--low light, no tripod, we were in the middle of the country, we couldn't move because it would distract the cow, and we were so far away. But that's what it is.
GC: That was so magical. And that happened when she was at a really low point, after that humiliating bullfight in that small town. We were wrapping, and getting the cables, and she stopped us and said she had this dream, that she always wanted to fight naked in the country and asked if we could be there with her. This was in 2007. We didn't know how we would use that naked scene--maybe that's because we're women. For us, it was like an opening, like, of course! We waited a month and went back and shot in the light of the full moon. We talked to some cinematographers in preparation for that scene, and they were like, "Oh, you can bring a generator and lights and ..." No. We couldn't. It was an intimate moment; it was a moment for her. The most important thing was just to be there for her. And to get to the place, we had to drive to the middle of the country. There were also a few men on horseback who brought the bull. It was a magical moment.... There were men and there were women and ... yeah ... we decided that, of course, we weren't going to have anything that would intrude on that moment. We knew that it was essential for Eva to do that; that it was a really huge part of Eva to do that, so we knew that it was a very powerful moment in the film. But how do you treat it? Because we didn't want people to think that "Oh, my god, this is a pornographic scene!" There was nothing pornographic about it. We knew that we wanted it to be in the film, because it was Eva's soul, in a way, but how do you treat it? All the film's editors were women, so we were really trusting that it would work out. Just the way it was edited.... Even though sometimes I say there is no gender, I think gender has a huge part in who we are, and there's a different sensibility, I think.
CM: So as much as we've talked about the challenges and obstacles of femininity in bullfighting, it sounds like there are some things we can talk about that being a female brings to bullfighting that being a male doesn't.
GC: I think women in the ring are like a fresh element, in a way, and I think that if there were women like Maripaz--at that level--more women matadors that were really good at it, and they were given more access into fighting, more contracts so they could show what they can do, I think having a woman in the ring could really revitalize bullfighting, could make people think about bullfighting in other ways. I think people are tired of seeing the same thing over and over, and when a woman takes that role and does it well, I think people like it. So, I don't know if maybe people are looking at courage through another lens, I don't really know, but all I can say is that if that were more women bullfighting it would become more interesting too. Because you do see traditional "male" courage in women, you don't take things for granted, and you think "Wow! Her courage and skills--we're not used to seeing them in the ring!" So, it might revitalize the profession a little bit, too.
For me bullfighting is not about being masculine, it's about having a set of skills and a very specific passion and just loving what you do, but I think for a lot of people, it would mean redefining all the thoughts that have been perpetuated for centuries. Some people have said that women have something to offer to bullfighting--that it has to renew itself and catch up with the times.
And why not? Why not a woman fighting if they're good? Maybe more people will go to the fights because there's this tension and newness to the fight. I think some people think it could be good for la fiesta--for the tradition--but there is a huge [fight] between not wanting to change, thinking that things should stay the way they are, and adding new elements. I think it would be good for it. I would go see more bullfights if I could go see Maripaz more. Celeste and I were not into bullfighting when we started this. I grew up in a part of Spain where you run the bulls on horseback in the country and it's very different, and Celeste had never entered a bullring before making this film. So, we're not knowledgeable about bullfighting itself. Bullfighting is something that's just "there", like baseball in the States. But I have a lot of respect for their passion--for the women--and I think it's something very, very unique and I have respect for that. And if there were more women fighting on the level of Maripaz, I think it would attract a new audience.
CM: Would you think that the existence of more female matadors would change the dynamic of competition and collaboration, as well? All of the women who are matadors learned from men, and the only template they have for success is male. I wonder, if there were women teaching women, things would be different.
CC: I wonder what would happen if it was 50% female matadors and the other 50% male and in a corrida, you would find two females and one male. I wonder if they would be as competitive as males. As a matter of fact, Maripaz hardly ever fought with other women. I think she fought with Cristina once, and probably fought in five or six corridas with other women, and Maripaz has fought probably 200-and-something corridas in her life. So, I think you have to be competitive to be a bullfighter if you want to succeed. It's a power issue--it's a dynamic that happens--you need to fight with the bull, but you also need to ... people are going to compare you with other fighters, so you need to have that in mind, even though they collaborate and give help to each other, but that's regardless of gender, I think.
GC: I don't think women are supportive of other women in bullfighting. This was something that we discovered. I don't want to talk badly about the profession, but women are not collaborative. It's more like "You're a bull fighter; I'm a bullfighter. Good luck." "You figure it out, you're on your own." It's a really super-competitive world, and being a woman, it's not a guarantee that because you're a woman you're going to support me. Uh-uh.... You will support me because you really care, because you have other values, but not because you're a woman and we're going to have a support system. I don't know if that would change. Maripaz is a little bit different in that way. That's why we have that scene in the film, where she says, "I can always give them advice, but there's not much I can do," but I think she really cares. She keeps track of the other women. Probably for her, it's important to see other women in the ring, too.
Another important thing is that if you fight with other women, they're going to look at you as if you're less of a bullfighter. This is huge. Matadors like Cristina and Maripaz would probably not want to fight with other women. They've done it, but there is prejudice that if you're fighting with other women, you're not taken seriously. I think it would be different to fight Cristina, Maripaz, Enrique Ponce, and Jose Tomas--that would be amazing because they're all top matadors. I would go see that bullfight. There's a tradition also in smaller towns--they do corridas, and they have a fight where they have four women fighting, but you go to see that fight almost hoping to laugh, and to make fun of them. So the mockery aspect is associated with women fighting together. Which is so sad, you know?
CM: For Maripaz to have those qualities of being supportive and keeping tabs on other women, that's really a leadership quality.
GC: It is, and that's something that's good to mention because it is unusual, and I was really pleased. She knows the system well. She keeps track of other women, and she'd probably like to see more women fighting, and fighting with her, but it's the stigma associated with it. But she's really an amazing person in that way. Is that a feminine quality? But she also has to navigate the system. And in order to navigate the system she has to be always really vigilant and aware, and make sure people respect who she is, which means being indistinguishable from the men. She's very different personally and in the plaza. In the plaza, she's very "on"--she's the boss--she has to be the boss. It's no place to mess around. If you're not like that, people are going to ... you're in a world where people are just watching for you to fail. Though, I think within the bullfighting world, she's respected. I think people recognize the name Maripaz Vega, and they know that she's a bullfighter.
CM: One thing that interested me: In the film, Maripaz said that it was easier for her to go to Latin America and get fights--that she was worth more in Latin America. Can you talk about that a little? Are the audiences different? Are there different views of the corrida? Or does it run even deeper, to differences in how masculinity works in the service of national identity?
CC: That tie to national identity is why it's been so hard for women to break in. It's a threat. But the question is complicated. Bullfighting is Spanish, and went to Latin America many years ago. The reason women bullfighters are more welcome in Latin America is really because the Latin American audiences are not that tough. They are not ... I don't want to say they're not that well-educated in bullfighting, but when you go to Latin America and see a bullfight, the reaction of the audience is totally different than when you go to Las Ventas. (7) In Madrid, when you go to a bullfight, there's silence. People take it more seriously when they are watching, and it's not that festive. It has to do with the tradition of bullfighting in a country. It also "flips the omelet" to have women matadors--it changes all of what you expect that "masculine" means, especially for men. They don't want to be compared with a woman--especially if she does it well, or better than they do. That's why they don't want to share the same billing with women. Because, in the case where she does better, the audience is going to recognize that, and applaud for her more than for the job done by a male.
GC: Yeah, that was one of the things that I was like, "Wow!" because we always think that Latin Americans are more machistas. But in this case, I think an important reason they can go there is because they've never been prohibited by law, so there's not this baggage that says they can't do it, or shouldn't do it. So, I think that's one of the answers that I give to myself. I don't think it's easy for women to get contracts in Latin America, but at least they don't have this history that's telling them, "You shouldn't be in this place." And some Latin American audiences are really, really serious about bullfighting, but they're more open. It's surprising. I think they're aware of how hard it is for women, how rare it is. Maybe because they don't have that history of prohibition, they value the courage.
CM: So, let's turn our attention back to the film and the two of you. Were there things that, when you set out to do this, you wanted to make a point of including or emphasizing, or messages that you wanted to get across? Assumptions that you made? What were your take-aways from your experience with Eva and Maripaz?
CC: Well, some of that came over time, when we were editing, because in the beginning we were shooting for so long, with breaks in time. But one thing that we had very clear from the beginning was that we wanted to make a film for an audience that was not familiar with bullfighting, and also we wanted to be very truthful to our characters. We wanted to have the spirit of Maripaz and Eva throughout the whole film, so audiences would understand it. Those were probably the two things we had in mind throughout the whole process, and then other things came across, especially in the editing, because it took us a while--it took us eight months to cut the film.
We wanted to have an international audience, so we were very careful about not explaining a lot of what bullfighting is about. It's so complex and we're not knowledgeable about it, we wanted to just give a little bit of the context, so you understand the struggles of Eva and Maripaz. A lot of people have criticized us for not showing enough of the fight, for someone who has never been to a bullfight, or even for bullfighting aficionados. They expected to see more fights, and more blood, and more of the bull itself. But it's not a film about bullfighting, it's about something else. So that was hard to balance. We didn't want to explain all those things, we just wanted to follow the lives of Maripaz and Eva, and to engage an audience that probably has a lot of prejudices before watching the film about bullfighting
A lot of people have said that the film is very naive and that we are not that critical on different aspects of bullfighting, gender roles, and so on, but it's very complex and you read it the way you want to read it. It depends where you come from--you watch it in a different way, and that's the beauty of it. What is great about the film is how it changes your perception of what being a matador is. You get to know the women a little bit, in order to understand why they want to do it, without judging if it's right or wrong.
GC: For me, it really has become a feminist project. I was really interested in the gender aspect of it. I was like, "Why? What happens, what shifts when you walk into the plaza with the bullfighting suit? What is going on there?" Especially when we discovered the prohibition against women fighting--the idea of not being able to have access, just because you're born a woman--that's really frustrating. So for me, I consider myself a feminist, and it became a feminist story.
In the course of getting to know them and all that, one of the biggest things for me, though, was that I realized that it was so much more complex than that, that it was not about fighting for them to have a place; it was not about "Hey, women! Unite!" and support each other. That couldn't happen. That was frustrating for me; I couldn't believe that they didn't support each other, because I also went with this mentality, like, "You can organize, you can support each other," and that's not how it works for them. It's a passion that goes beyond gender, and if they have the courage to enter it, beyond their difficulties. Getting to know Maripaz's family, all those brothers and her father, they were all so sweet. They really flipped the story for me--all those men who were supportive of the women, but couldn't create change. It's really complex.
So yes, my intention was to do a story about the women, and I went with my feminist side very strong. I still have it, but I also had to respect that, oh, my god, these women don't want to change anything about their profession, other than to be able to do what they love. And, you know, these women don't want to talk badly about their companieros because they know how hard it is to be where they are. I thank them for that. I still think there are a lot of things that could change, but I have more ... I realize that ... with anything you do, there are certain things that have no gender. If you write a good article, you have your lens, your point of view. It's like even film--you add certain things because you're a woman, but at the same time, a film is a film.... I don't know. So that was a big eye opener for me, that there is something essential here that has no gender. I'm not trying to say that gender doesn't matter. Gender is huge--that's why they don't fight more, because they're women.
CC: Keep in mind that we were much younger when we started making the film. It's been about ten years already, so we were two young girls with a camera who wanted to do a film about women bullfighters, and we found a lot of obstacles. We were not taken seriously, to begin with, and then, people wondered, "Why do you want to make a film about female bullfighters, if you're not into bullfighting at all? "Which is true; we were not bullfighting aficionados. So it took us a while to express our intention and to shape what we wanted to do. It took us years, because we also needed to learn, and to meet the women. It took us a while get in touch with Maripaz and Eva, so after all that process of developing the story that we wanted to tell, and getting access to them, it took us a while. And during all that time, people would ask, "Why do you want to do a film about female matadors? Bullfighting should be prohibited and women who want to do it are probably more machista than even men." We heard a lot of comments about that so it wasn't easy.
GC: Bullfights in Spain are broadcast in a specific way, but it's not intimate. They do an amazing job--a beautiful job--but the way they approach the same subject is very different from our film. I think our intention was to capture what it was like to be in a place where you're not welcome; what it's like to be in front of the animal. I think the fact that we're women made a big difference. There's another film done about a male bullfighter, but for me, the interest was the women. We really wanted to capture what it was like to be there and have that passion, and I think the fact that we were two women, it affected how close we got to the characters, the access. Sometimes, we were not given access, but also the access that we got had a lot to do with who we were. When we were in Madrid recently showing the film, there was one guy--the guys were amazing with questions and everything--who wanted to know why we didn't dig into the dark side of bullfighting more, since in Spain people know that it's a dark world. There are a lot of things--it's like boxing--it's dirty, people sleeping around, money ... and I was just not interested in digging into that. I wouldn't have made a film about male matadors. We were interested in what it was like to be a woman, the challenges, the courage, what it was like to really bend that, and switch the roles.
I don't think we were aware of how complex it was until we got into it. It's much more complex than just wrong or right. Bullfighting is so strange ... I know I couldn't be a bullfighter, I have a lot of respect for their attraction, I've been close enough, watching Celeste shoot, and it's like, "Wow ... I think it takes a very specific person, beyond gender, to do this, but I think I definitely appreciate their courage, and I value their choice." I couldn't do it, I couldn't kill an animal, but that's not how they think, their mentality is very different. For them, it's like, they love this animal and they watch them getting older, they show their best qualities, and they have to give them a dignified death. It's a whole different mindset, so even if there weren't more women trying to get into the profession, because it's extremely hard, it would be nice to be able to appreciate them. There are a lot of things that you learn from them--like courage--that you can apply to your life. I really think that we all have a matador inside. Not in terms of killing an animal, but in those qualities like confronting fear, having composure if you're trying to do something that's really different, having a clear mind in a difficult situation, taking risks. I think those are qualities that I've also learned from them. Think about if you're asked to do something out of your comfort zone--that's what they do, and they're trained to do that--I think those are qualities that we can learn from them.
(1) I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Celeste and Gemma for their time and generosity of spirit in making this interview possible.
(2) Produced by Talcual Films; Directed, produced, and written by Celeste Carrasco and Gemma Cubero; Celeste Carrasco, cinematographer.
(3) "Catalonia bans bullfighting in landmark Spain vote" BBC News Europe, 28 July 2010 <www. BBC.co.uk>
(4) Personal communication, Gemma Cubero, 27 July 2010.
(6) Juan Belmonte (1892-1962), a Spanish bullfighter considered by many to have transformed bullfighting, is often considered to be one of the greatest matadors who ever lived.
(7) Las Ventas is Spain's main bullring, located in Madrid.
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|Author:||Miller, Cynthia J.|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2012|
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