Like most Spaniards, filmmakers Gemma Cubero and Celeste Carrasco grew up with bullfighting held up as the quintessential symbol of masculinity and bravery in Spanish culture. Their directorial debut, Ella es el Matador, challenges that deeply-rooted cultural stereotype by telling the controversial story of female matadors.
When they started the film, “we hardly knew anything about bullfighting, and both of us disliked bullfighting,” Cubero admits. “It was hard at times to watch certain aspects of the bullfight.” Cubero continues “The point, however, is that this film is not about being pro or anti bullfighting. The point is to do what you love no matter what.”
The spark for Ella es el Matador, came in San Francisco in the late 1990s, during the production of Lourdes Portillo’s award-winning documentary Señorita Extraviada. Cubero and Carrasco, who both worked on that film, credit Portillo as a mentor and source of inspiration “she introduced us to documentary filmmaking and has been a teacher ever since.”
Cubero remembers “we had both been living in the States for several years and had gained some distance from Spain. We read in the New York Times that the only known female matador of the 1990’s, Cristina Sánchez, was quitting because other male matadors at the top didn’t want to share top billings. This sparked our interest and we decided to research what was behind the news. When we started the project we became fascinated with these questions – ‘Why would a woman want to be a matador?’ ‘What do they feel in the ring?’ ‘Why do they do it?’”
Cubero has gone on record as saying that Ella es el Matador began as a gender story, but nine years later the finished film is a richer, more complex story. The way the matadoras talk about themselves and their lives is a tale of struggle to overcome and what's involved in that struggle.
In many ways, the struggle of the matadoras mirrors Cubero and Currasco’s own struggle to get the film funded, made and shown. Cubero and Carrasco “have also faced great obstacles, had to be determined to move forward despite the obstacles and believe in ourselves.”
Cubero says “Getting access to the closed, private world of bullfighting was one of the major challenges” and “there were many male bullring managers who refused to speak with us about the issue of female matadors.” She continues “The second, equally big challenge was fundraising for a project that doesn’t fall within most of the funding guidelines of foundations as well as being such a controversial subject matter.”
Carrasco’s cinematography brings well-crafted aesthetics and a sense of art to the gory details of bullfighting, but bullfighting remains a controversial sport, and female matadors more controversial still. “We chose a subject matter that was very controversial within Spain and a foreign subject to most Americans.”
Will they shy away from controversial subjects in future films? “No we certainly won’t shy away from controversy nor do we seek it. We wanted to do this film because it was an important story that needed to be told and it happened to be controversial. In the future, we will continue to look for stories of depth and courage that may or may not happen to be controversial. We are not afraid of controversy, as long as we feel passionate about the story and the need to share it with the world.” Their next film is about Queer Tango, continuing to play with gender roles.
Funding to date for Ella es el Matador has been raised entirely in the U.S.¬ including a grant from Latino Public Broadcasting, a Tribeca All Access Creative Promise Award for Documentary and the generosity of individual donors, made easier because of fiscal sponsorship through the San Francisco Film Society. The film also recently won $2,500 as one of the inaugural Herbert Family Filmmaking Grants– part of the Film Society’s grants and residencies programs, designed to foster the creativity and further the careers of independent filmmakers.
Cubero and Carrasco are not entirely surprised that funding has been raised outside their home country. “In Spain, it is harder to break in and it is more of a closed, male filmmaking world. In many ways, this film needed to be made outside of Spain and receive its success outside in order to gain recognition within the country.”
Despite the challenges they’ve faced on the home front, the final title of the film has been intentionally changed to the Spanish Ella es el Matador (“She is the Matador”). “We wanted to have the title in Spanish, because in Spanish we can play with the feminine (Ella) and then follow it with the masculine (el Matador).”
Ella es el Matador offers intimate profiles of two female matadors currently in the arena: the acclaimed Mari Paz Vega and aspiring matador Eva Florencia. Cubero and Carrasco faced additional challenges finding matadoras who were also willing to open themselves up to neophyte filmmakers. As gender pioneers, there is a natural wall of protection that the matadoras have built around themselves, and developing trust and intimacy with the matadoras was an essential but tricky early step in the filmmakers’ journey. “It took a lot of trust. We had to build a very solid relationship with our protagonists so they would know that we were not judging their choices.”
The film has achieved increasing success recently. Shown in June at the SILVERDOCS AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival, they’ve also now signed with Women Make Movies as their North American Distributor. Ella es el Matador will premiere on September 1, 2009 on PBS’s Emmy Award®-winning P.O.V.. See http://www.pbs.org/pov/matador/ for additional details. P.O.V. has received more emails than usual, questioning the programming of the controversial film.
When asked about lessons she has learned in long journey of making Ella es el Matador and what advice she has for fellow struggling filmmakers, Cubero mused “Determination and passion; the same things it takes to be a matador. Plus a little bit of luck. As Maripaz says ‘you have to grab the bull by the horns.’”