Monthly Archives: March 2016

My review of Gored for the New Statesman

In his fifteen year career as a professional matador, Spaniard Antonio Barrera has survived 23 cornadas, or “hornings”, making him the most gored torero in modern history. His journey towards retirement in December 2012 is the subject of Ido Mizrahy’s new documentary Gored, which, after a hugely successful festival run last April (including winning Best Documentary at Raindance) has just been released on Netflix and iTunes in the UK.

It is not a documentary about the rights or wrongs of bullfighting, but rather, as the director Ido Mizrahy – who does not describes himself as a fan of bullfighting, but is not against it either – tells me, “about life and death, family, broken dreams”, and one man’s single-minded obsession with doing something he isn’t great at. As the Spanish bullfighting critic J A de Moral explains in Gored, he isn’t “fino, has no ‘aesthetic grace…he isn’t one of the artist matadors with an aesthetic purity from another galaxy”. He is, however, insanely brave, and is prepared to die every time he enters the ring.

Mizrahy explains that this is what drew him and Geoff Gray, his writing partner, to Barrera as a subject – the very fact he isn’t a poster boy for bullfighting insured an honest look at the ancient spectacle that would fully demonstrate its brutality. There would be no risk of the viewer getting caught up in the romance or artistry of it, not when, according to de Moral, the spectacle never stops being “a mere fight” and so cannot become “a tragic ballet of extraordinary beauty”.

Whatever your views on bullfighting, there is no denying that Antonio Barrera is a captivating subject: a brave, tragic hero, Ajax-like in his bravery and in his fate to never to be the best. He explains in Gored that there is nothing in the world he loves more than bullfighting; that he has never, not even with a woman, maintained a relationship so intimate as he has with a bull, and that it’s the most pure relationship he knows.

His long-suffering wife (the daughter of a fighting bull breeder), who has been with him through 18 of the 23 cornadas, is desperate for him to retire. But when she fell in love with him, she promised herself she “would never ask him when he would retire – never”. Now that Barrera has a family, however, he has finally decided to call it a day in Léon, Mexico. A 501 kg bull called “Bienvenido” will be the last he’ll ever fight. But will it be a relieved welcome back to the land of the living, or a final welcome to the death he’s cheated 23 times?

By the final frames, you’re still not sure which resolution, if any, has been brought forth by his last appearance in the bull ring. He has in theory survived and retired, and is now managing his good friend, the torero Morante de la Puebla (who incidentally cut off Barrera’s coleta – the small ponytail all toreros have – marking his retirement in Léon). Morante is one of the aforementioned “artist matadors from another galaxy”, and this new role allows Barrera to still be close to his beloved bulls, without offering his life to them.

The closing scenes are some of the most powerful in the documentary. Mizrahy shows us anti-bullfighting protestors outside Seville’s bullring during the spring feria – various young Spaniards standing around holding placards, and a girl with a megaphone shouting “bulls deserve to live, like us”. At this point, against the backdrop of Barrera’s heroics and contemplation of his own mortality, the protestors seem grotesque and incongruous; modernity jarring against not only the timeless beauty of Barrera’s wife in the next shot in her traditional flamenca dress, but also with the profundity of the film.

In the final few minutes, we see Barrera in his new life. He’s now an anonymous figure clad in a normal blue suit, walking through the crowds outside the bullring, behind the gran figura Morante, signing autographs and shining brightly in his matador’s “suit of lights”. We leave Barrera contemplating his future without the “driving force of his life”, asking “cual es mi ilusion ahora?”, or “what is my dream/what do I have to look forward to now?”

Mizrahy hasn’t heard from his protagonist since finishing filming. He has no idea what Barrera thought of the film or whether he’s even seen it. He describes him as “bull-like” in as much as if you’re not in his peripheral vision, he can’t see you and you can’t reach him.

***

A few weeks ago here in Mexico City, Morante de la Puebla performed the most beautiful “tragic ballet” of the bullfighting season at the Monumental Plaza de Toros. A few hours later, outside a hotel, I briefly locked eyes with Antonio Barrera. Morante was in the bar enjoying a drink after his successful afternoon, but Barrera was standing alone outside with the exact same lost, slightly haunted expression he has at the end of Gored – I fear he’ll never find an ilusion quite like the bulls but I’m confident he won’t stop looking.

Gored is now available on iTunes and Netflix. Find out more www.goredthemovie.com

VICE: The Most Gored Matador in Modern History Q&A

Gored Trailer

Link to my article on Ido Mizrahy’s documentary Gored for VICE

Antonio Barrera is not a great bullfighter. As the Spanish bullfighting critic J.A. del Moral puts it in Ido Mizrahy’s documentary Gored, he has no “aesthetic grace.” In other words, he isn’t one of the “artist” matadors with an “aesthetic purity…from another galaxy.” Barrera never reaches the point where the spectacle stops being “a mere fight” and becomes “a tragic ballet of extraordinary beauty.”

But he makes up for these failings with unflinching bravery. Barrera is proud to “offer his life 100 percent” every time he enters a bull ring; and, with 23 cornadas, he is the most gored bullfighter in modern history. Gored gives us glimpses of his near-death experiences: On his knees in front of a thousand-pound bull in the pouring rain; hopping around the ring with a makeshift tourniquet around his bloody upper thigh; staggering, bare-chested, bare-buttocked, bleeding from various wounds, his “suit of lights” split open at the seams by the bull’s horns; on a stretcher being rushed to the ringside infirmary unable to breathe. His wife is desperate for him to give it up, but when they first fell in love she promised to never ask him to retire.

Gored tells the story of the run-up to Antonio Barrera’s planned retirement from bullfighting and his final fight against a beast, aptly-named Bienvenido. After making the festival rounds last spring (including a slot at Tribeca Film Festival), Gored is now available for the public to watch online. We talked to director Ido Mizrahy about his bloody doc, and why he doesn’t expect bullfighting to die out anytime soon.

VICE: How did you originally find out about Antonio Barrera? Were you a fan?
Ido Mizrahy: No, not at all. My writing partner [the journalist Geoff Gray] had become interested in this ancient spectacle of bullfighting. He met Antonio Barrera in Spain, and did a profile on him. They stayed in touch, and when Antonio mentioned he might retire, we thought it might make an interesting short film. Once we started filming, however, we realized it was a much fuller story… it wanted to be a feature-length documentary.

By all accounts, Barrera is not a particularly gifted bullfighter. What was it that drew you to him as a subject?
What was interesting to me is that he wasn’t one of the gods of bullfighting. He didn’t have the artistry, the duende that’s expected from the great figuras, but rather he was just a human being trying to do this. His destiny was set in motion for him: his father was a failed bullfighter and put Antonio in front of the bulls when he was 7, but he just didn’t have the goods. So he created his own brand of bullfighting that was really more about coming back from the dead, and became famous for it. And he had to keep that style because that was what drew people to see him.

Barrera is Spanish, but his career seems to have played out mainly in Mexico. Why is that?
Antonio felt much more welcome in Mexico for a variety of reasons, but mostly because Mexicans really appreciated what he put out there. The Spanish affición get pretty snarky about bravery. They tend to think, Of course you’re supposed to be brave, that’s a given. The big deal is to be an artist while you’re doing it. Whereas in Mexico they seemed to be saying, We know you’re not a great artist, but give us everything you’ve got anyway. We want to see you put your guts out there, and we’ll respect you for it. Antonio could offer that.

Bullfighting is obviously a controversial subject. Were you confident audiences and critics would see beyond any debates about its morality?
We knew we were walking into fertile ground, but, in a way, that’s what you want as a filmmaker. The choice of having Antonio Barrera as the protagonist, rather than bullfighting in general, was a good way of not hiding from the subject, but rather putting it at eye-level. Especially as Antonio isn’t a poster-boy for bullfighting and doesn’t exhibit that artistry, so you never get swallowed up by the romance. We’re not trying to justify bullfighting, which is why I think lots of people who are anti-bullfighting have loved the movie, because it doesn’t feel like a bullfighting film. It’s about obsession, life and death, broken dreams, family.

But, as Antonio Barrera emphatically says at the end of the doc, “I am a bullfighter.” He’s not just “any man” dealing with these issues. Would someone like Antonio, or many of the themes arising from his story, even exist outside of bullfighting?
No, and that’s exactly why bullfighting still exists. There’s still a really visceral need to be around death in a controlled environment. Today news channels feed us death all the time, but that’s very different. That’s driven by politics, conquest—lots of other things. For us to be able to go into a controlled environment and see man try to submit nature in that way, and share in that incredibly difficult task, I think that’s what keeps bullfighting relevant. Which is why there’s so much pushback against it. If it was just fading away, people would let it be. But I think it still has so many fans and still exists because it satisfies something really primal.

Has making the film changed your view of bullfighting?
I find myself much more interested. A film takes a long time to make, so you have to be submerged in the subject. You have to learn to understand your subject without judging it. It didn’t turn me into a fan, but I am not a protestor. To my sensibility, I don’t necessarily enjoy it, but there’s something about it that I totally understand now, and which tells me why it’s still around.

How did Barrera respond to the film?
I have no idea. So here’s the other reality about trying to make a movie about a matador: they are really tricky to pin down. He’s like a bull; if you’re not within his peripheral vision, you cannot reach Antonio Barrera. As close and as intimate a time as we had with him, when he’s not in front of us physically, we can’t reach him. As soon as we finished, I wanted his take on it before I even locked picture, but he never responded.

Was it difficult filming such crucial moments in his life?
We met him when he was making the most painful decision he’s ever made. Getting gored over and over again wasn’t painful for him anymore, but to make the decision to walk away from the bulls? That was really painful. To film his family in the days leading up to his final bullfight… they couldn’t care less about us. We’re filming people dealing with life-shattering decisions. And everyone had a stake in it: his wife, his daughter, his father-in-law. Everyone was so invested, and the camera was so low on their priority list, that we filmed the real stuff. It’s a very privileged point of view, real access to something, which is incredibly rare in documentaries.

‘Gored’ is out now on iTunes, Netflix, and Amazon. For more information, visit the documentary’s website here.http://www.vice.com/read/a-look-at-the-life-of-the-most-gored-bullfighter-in-modern-history