by Jessica Mosby
- USA -
Maripaz Vega, currently the world’s only professional female matador, emerges triumphant from yet another death-defying bullfight. Her jeweled matador jacket and pants are covered with as much blood as sparkle while the crowd’s enthusiastic roar echoes through the second-rate bullfighting ring in a small Spanish town. Bullfighting is undeniably gory, and yet the sport’s myriad dangers and even risk of death don’t stop the dedicated few like Vega from committing their lives to the dream of facing a bull in one of Spain’s most prestigious plazas.
She Is the Matador is not so much a documentary about bullfighting as it is about women challenging a male-dominated tradition to follow their steadfast ambitions. Though bullfighting is the documentary’s principal subject, the personal stories that develop transcend the controversial blood sport. Cubero and Carrasco do an admirable job of explaining the sport’s logistics, in addition to Spain’s unique bullfighting history and culture. Even the faint of heart will appreciate She Is the Matador; the intense scenes in the ring are nerve-racking and yet not particularly violent or gory.
The filmmakers use saturated colors and beautiful camera work to capture the personal and professional struggles of Vega and Florencia, particularly the unique family dynamics in each woman’s life. Cubero and Carrasco never insert their personal opinions about the controversial sport, allowing Vega’s and Florencia’s stories to unfold over a number of years.
Vega holds the coveted title of “matador,” and yet she struggles to find entree into the most important Spanish matches. Female bullfighting, which was banned in Spain after the Civil War, is now legal, but still not widely accepted. Many first-tier male matadors refuse to participate in a match where a female matador is also on the billing. Vega instead builds a loyal fan base by competing in second-rate matches all over Spain, and travels to Latin America where female bullfighters are accepted and even embraced.
The years of fighting for recognition, and a number of serious injuries, show on Vega’s world-worn face. While in a seaside city for a local bullfight, Vega wades out of the tranquil ocean in her bikini and proceeds to point out the scars on her thighs. She describes each goring and the resulting injuries and surgeries. “It's a fight between you and the bull,” Vega muses, “either one can win the battle."
While she struggles for gender equality in the bullfighting world, Vega’s own male-dominated family embraces and supports her. Vega’s father and brothers all tried their hands at bullfighting, but none could ever advance past the apprentice level to become official matadors. They express their pride in Vega’s achievements, and one of her brothers even works as her assistant in the ring.In contrast to level-headed Vega’s established talent, Florencia is a young and impetuous apprentice. When the filmmakers meet her, Florencia has been in Spain for almost a decade, but has yet to compete in the requisite 25 matches to become an official matador. At the age of 16, Florencia ran away from her native Italy to Sevilla after reading about Spain’s bullfighting tradition. Her family visits her once a year, and after years of unsuccessfully dissuading her, they accept Florencia’s unwavering dream – even if they don’t completely understand the sport’s appeal.
The challenge of becoming an official matador is finding billing – and then surviving – in enough amateur matches. The title of matador is coveted for a reason. There are over 600 bullrings scattered throughout Spain, and yet during filming Florencia had a dry year wherein she only competed in a single bullfight. Florencia blames her lack of funds and gender for her inability to break into the sport because many promoters demand payment from apprentice matadors and most don’t want women on the bill.
What is so striking about Florencia is her love and commitment – which borders on obsession – to becoming a matador. She speaks lovingly about running away to Spain, but like Vega, the years of wanting and trying while receiving little in return have taken their toll. Her story of longing is simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring. Putting everything on the line for a dream takes courage, and yet the reality of Florencia’s dream of becoming a matador is ultimately unattainable.
She Is the Matador is as much about dreamers and feminism as it is about matadors. Vega and Florencia face an angry animal in their matches, but this explicit danger pales in comparison to the sexism and patriarchal culture that keep their goals slightly out of reach – close enough to see and want, but too far to actually touch.
About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Oakland, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.