Bull Running in Pamplona: Film Review

The inner workings of Spain’s most famous and dangerous fiesta are revealed in an efficiently-made, unashamedly partisan documentary which is distinguished by its breathtaking 3D visuals.

The myth-making of Hemingway’s celebration of a Spanish tradition is updated for a new generation in Olivier van Der Zee's documentary.

Every July, at 8 a.m. each morning for eight days, thousands of (mostly) men dash for about three minutes wearing red neckerchiefs through the narrow streets of a northern Spanish town. The best of them are running within touching distance of a group of fighting bulls, each weighing more than a ton, and they all end up in the ring in which the bulls will fight that afternoon.

Made internationally famous by Ernest Hemingway, who probably never took part himself, the running of the bulls in Pamplona is now the subject of a film which uses personal anecdote, carefully selected archive material and striking 3D footage to keep the myth alive into the twentieth century. Made by a local production company and featuring testimony only from unconditional fans, the film is more a celebration of the bull run than an enquiry into it, sidestepping all ethical debate. International interest, perhaps with a hint of scandal, comes built-in for a project which premiered at Spain's recent Malaga festival.

Bull Running in Pamplona is structured simply, depicting the tense build-up and going on to supply a detailed insider view of the run through its various stages. Anecdote and reflection comes from a variety of experienced runners from Spain and elsewhere, including an amiable, Jimmy Carter-like American (Joe Distler) and a thoughtful Welshman (Noel Chandler), who over the years have themselves become a part of the mythology and are happy to be heroes once a year. The practicalities of the event are fascinatingly dealt with by the down-to-earth bull drover Miguel Reta, whose job it is "to protect the bulls."

Talking heads against a dark background, the men are highly articulate (the film dispels the idea that the bull run is just for crazy, sleepless young drunks), their words revealing their respect for the bulls, and the exhilaration they feel. They use words like “magical” and “mystical," and let the viewer into some trade secrets: if you’re thinking of trying it for yourself, then apparently it’s the mass of people, rather than the bulls, which is the real danger. All the men have at some point been gored, but all of them have unquestioningly returned. Their psychological reasons for doing so remain unexplored.

Visually, the film is a real treat for remote control runners: aerial footage was recorded on 3D cameras on cables suspended high above the action, offering a unique perspective for anyone who has ever longed to stand on one of the privileged balconies overlooking the run. The street-level footage is what really counts, though, and it successfully transmits the sensation of having a snorting, disoriented bull next to you: 3D technology might have been invented with the horns of these animals in mind.  The special visuals are what sets the film apart from any other efficiently-made documentary on the same subject.

The ethical debate is smartly sidestepped. In a culture which is increasingly hostile to the mistreatment of bulls, the film is solid propaganda for its defenders. Most of the violence here is directed by the bulls at the runners, and some shots showing grown men being thoughtlessly tossed on a beast’s horns are authentically squirm-inducing: Julen Medina’s matter-of-fact description of being gored is in powerful counterpoint to the onscreen archive images of it, and graphically reveals that although the run doesn’t bring much death, it does bring real danger for those who come too close.

Aware that 90 minutes of frantic running and noise might become wearying, the director and writer Olivier Van Der Zee breaks it up with shots of streets waiting in quiet anticipation of the chaos ahead, and of the recollections of a man whose son died in 2009. Especially haunting is a sequence a few seconds before the run in which a young man walks tensely among the runners holding a statue of San Fermin, in whose honor the fiesta is held, and which they reverently kiss and touch. Most of the runners will go home that night: the bulls, of course, very rarely do.

Venue: Cine Berlanga, Madrid
Production companies: D4D Ingenieria Visual, REC Grabaketa Estudioa.
Director, screenwriter, editor: Olivier van der Zee
Producers: Enrique Urdanoz, Manuel Cristobal, Maria Cabanas, Salvador Puig
Director of photography: Enrique Urdanoz
3D: Javier Cabanas, Susana Cabanas
No rating, 79 minutes