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