Doc of the Day: Bull Runners of Pamplona Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Bull Runners of Pamplona

Posted in Days of Docs, Reviews by - October 26, 2012
Doc of the Day: Bull Runners of Pamplona

So why, exactly, do people run? With bulls, that is?

Dir. Aubrey Powell, 2012, 58 min, Viewed via Vodsite

Full Disclosure: A representative of Journeyman Pictures sent me a link to view this film for free, for review.

If one were to draw up a list of the top Spanish stereotypes, bullfighting and the running of the bulls would likely be quite high up, sandwiched between sexy dances and large hats. Yet, according to this documentary, bullfighting actually is enjoyed by a comparatively small percentage of the Spanish population. And yet any attempts to ban the sport for animal cruelty are met with fierce opposition from a good deal of the public. Why?

People love tradition ever so much, no matter how little sense it makes. Continuing to do something simply because it’s something that’s been done for a long time is completely nonsensical (not to mention loopily tautological). It’s another aspect of nostalgia, that most damnable emotion that seems to cripple a human being’s sense of reason more effectively than any other.

But there’s something else to the love of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. That’s what this documentary is interested in getting at. Every year, the festival of San Fermín is celebrated in the small town, which is otherwise quite sleepy, with a raucous eight day series of events. They include parades, religious processions, and, of course, running through the streets amidst a stampede of bulls in anticipation of bullfights. The movie explores all aspects of the festival, but that’s only to provide context for the bull running, which is the main focus.

The festival attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to Pamplona, many of whom come from all over the world specifically to participate in the running of the bulls. What’s the attraction here? The movie comes to an interesting conclusion: the appeal lies in the tempting of death. It seems like a very basic answer, but it actually makes a lot of sense. In the comfortable, middle-class world, physical harm is an extremely rare threat. But we are in love with danger. Our entertainment is soaked in it. We glorify it. So what’s to be done about facing death in order to feel alive? Why not run with a stampede of bulls?

Hundreds of people are injured each year during San Fermín. Fifteen have died since official records started being kept in 1925. We meet more than a few passionate bull runners in this film, more than a few of whom receive rather nasty injuries in the chaos. They’re true-blue enthusiasts, having attended multiple San Fermín festivals and developed specialized trampling-and-goring-avoidance strategies over the years. It’s all pretty nice to listen to, until it twigs in your mind that they’re talking about how they’ve become the best at an utterly absurd sport and then things just become surreal.

Bull Runners of Pamplona is a great look at the nature of tradition, and how we dream up bizarre entertainments in the absence of any true threats to our well-being. Risking bodily harm and torturing animals looks increasingly sane the more idle one’s mind is. The movie itself is far less judgmental than I am, of course, and that’s probably for the best. As a piece of informational travelogue, it’s extremely well-done.

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Dan Schindel loves movies more than you do.

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