The Bull Runners of Pamplona – An Interview with Filmmakers Aubrey Powell and Chris Cary
The Bull Runners of Pamplona is a captivating documentary that distills seven days of exhilaration into an hour of breathtaking film. Watching this documentary will give you an excellent sense of what Hemingway discovered in 1923 and spent his life thinking about.
Below is an interview with film director Aubrey Powell and executive director, Chris Cary, who share their story about the making of this film.
AB: Tell me about the technical part of making this movie: the camera work, setting up, and filming. How many cameras were filming and at what points in the run? What were your challenges in planning and completing the film?
Aubrey Powell: The technical part of The Bull Runners of Pamplona was extremely complicated. The film was shot over three consecutive years of the St Fermin festival and I learned a lot from year one.
Chris Cary: Filming the way we planned was one of the most challenging projects I have ever undertaken. The only way to film the encierro is from as many locations as possible, changing everyday. This way in the final edit you have the best coverage of the entire route and have hopefully been in the right place at the right time. During our shoot we had only one constant position and that was the camera traveling on a cable from the Curva at the beginning of Estafeta and running for 178 meters along Estafeta Street. This was the first time an aerial camera had ever been allowed and the position created some of our most unique footage. The only reason we were able to do this was because of the support we received from Yolanda Barcina, the then Mayor and Patxi Fernadez the Chief of police. They trusted us to do it right and we did. This particular view point allowed us to catch the bulls as they left Plaza Consistorial and follow them continuously most of the way down Estafeta in one shot. This is nearly 50% of the entire route. We were able to watch the encierro experience in a way that had never been achieved any other way.
Another thing to consider is that the bulls pass a location in a flash. The only way to see over the crowd is to be high above them. So, each camera, some of which weigh more than 30 pounds, had to be elevated precariously 4 -6 feet above the 6 ft fence. The same fence where people would be leaping and climbing in terror to escape the bulls. All of this in order to grab a shot that might last only 90 seconds. To the credit of the team every cameraman delivered a shot every day!!
AB: When you looked at the footage you had taken, did you find things that surprised you?
Aubrey Powell: The biggest surprise was in all the chaos of the encierro, three cameras managed to film the Irishman who was gored in the leg, and we found him afterwards in the street, and we were able to interview him in the hospital. Surprisingly, he was still very positive about the encierro.
Chris Cary: When you watch the overhead footage in slow motion you see every fall and have the time to study facial expressions and body language of anyone in shot. When a runner is really moving fast in front of a group of bulls he doesn’t look back very often. He is concentrating on where he is going and who is falling down in front of him. What is astonishing is how often someone comes within inches of being badly hurt by a passing bull. How runners are trying to get out of the way and there isn’t really enough room but somehow they just manage to squeeze into a space to escape and actually never realize how close it was.
Another thing is how clear it is that the safest place to run is exactly in the center at the front. Hence, this position is coveted by the expert runners. As the bulls move up the street the crowds part like the parting of the Red Sea. All those would be runners who were going to run WITH the bulls now run AWAY as fast as they can. That said to be at the front you have to be skilled, experienced and very, very fast. We have one great shot of a man running around La Curva, he is between the bulls and the wall. Exactly the place you should never, ever be. He has a bull behind him one in front of him and one beside him. He has nowhere to go and then somehow San Fermin gave him just enough space to squeeze through and he took it. An amazing run.
AB: Aubrey, you were quoted on the journeyman website as saying that Pamplona was the most hostile environment you have ever worked in. Can you talk about that?
Aubrey Powell: Well it is hostile. Any environment where two tons of Bull is bearing down onto exposed cameraman, even though we were behind or on top of barricades, is risky. Sharp horns slicing though the camera, or cameraman, at such close quarters, or being trampled by people in a panic, or the Bull jumping the fence, which happened to us in the bullring, is a pretty dangerous stuff. It’s not a war zone granted, but it was out of the usual comfort zone for many of the crew. The vibe from the crowd and the runners is fantastic, as they are so excited, and which is infectious, but in year two we saw a young man die three feet in front of our cameras from being gored in the heart, so I would call that a dangerous situation.
Chris Cary: Aubrey’s quote has been misinterpreted. Normally, when a film crew goes on location everything is planned. There are camera areas cordoned off, you know what is going to happen when and in fact you are in control of everything. During the encierro you are in control of nothing. There aren’t really any rules and you have no idea what is going to happen, but you have a job to deliver. Shooting under the fence on La Curva when there are terrified people running at you in fear of their life, as well as a pack of 500 kilo killing machines who are likely to slip right in front of you a thrust a 9 inch diameter hoof into your camera and your face is a dangerous and ‘hostile environment’. I think this is what Po meant.
The runners are the most amazing individuals I have ever met. The spirit of the Fiesta event encierro itself is impossible to describe, but in the street putting yourself in the way of danger to get a 90 second shot, this is hostile and chaotic.
AB: Can you add a postscript for viewers about Julen Madina Ayerbe? (Julen is a famous Spanish bull runner who was interviewed extensively on this film. After his interview, the film shows footage of Julen being severely gored at the entrance of the bullring in Pamplona.)
Aubrey Powell: Julen Madina. The bravest runner I ever saw, particularly for his age. But experience is everything. I saw fast young runners just as courageous and skillful, but without the knowledge of what it’s like to be badly hurt and get up a year later and go again, and again and again. He is not the most popular of runners, funnily enough. Too much TV exposure has made him enemies, and various people criticized his style of running as too selfish and brutal, taking out anyone that got in his way. I didn’t see that side of him at all. Whether some of the comments are through jealousy or because he is not actually from Pamplona and is a true Basque, I am not sure. He is a bull of a man and I can imagine as a younger runner he was probably quite aggressive for his own survival. For serious runners this is no game, as is shown in the film.
Chris Cary: Julen is a completely unique individual and I consider it an honor to have met him and now consider him a friend. In his youth along with Joe, Bomber and Jakin, Larry and many others he committed himself to the encierro in a way that is shared with only the very, very few. He is a gentle man but supremely courageous. If those who have run with him, love, admire and respect him then that’s enough for any man.
AB: Jakin Zuasti, another one of the Spanish runners featured on the film, talks about appreciating that a core group of long time American runners understand the traditions of fiesta – can you talk about those traditions?
Aubrey Powell: One of the unwritten rules of the encierro is, when running on the horns of the bull for a short while, the runner side steps to let another runner take his place. Very skillful stuff. No man can outrun the bull over the duration of the race. If a man has ten seconds on the horns then he is most fortunate. The etiquette states that no man shall touch the bulls as they pass – they risk a good whipping by the Shepherds who run behind the bulls if they do. The Americans who arrived in the late 1950’s and ‘60’s such as Joe Distler understood the proper form and respected the traditions of the encierro, and abided by it and learned from their elders and Spanish peers how to run properly with the Bulls. And they were very brave and athletic too, and for this they earned the respect of the locals. This is why the American runners appear so much in the film. They have a tale to tell and they are well represented to speak on behalf of the encierro.
Most of the ‘ tourists’ who turn up to have a go, and show a bit of bravado to brag about back home, have no clue as to the rules of the game. It’s a fun thing, of course, but it is also a serious tradition that deserves more respect from outsiders and first timers.
AB: It is beautiful to see the variety of ages at Pamplona’s running of the bulls, and each generation seems to take from it something different. You chose to tell your story through the eyes of a group of runners who have had years of experience in Pamplona and are able to distill their own ideas about fiesta very well. What does an average ‘career” look like? Surely the amount of times someone has run encierro is only part of it. What else goes into making a career of running with the bulls?
Aubrey Powell: Training. Look at Julen Madina or Joe Distler. They train like mad months before the encierro. You want to stay alive and run as the pros run? Then watch, look, listen and train. It’s an extreme sport, and not for the light hearted, no question about that.
Chris Cary: The best person to articulate this for you would be Tom Turley. The people of Pamplona do this every year for most of their adult life. It’s not a habit, it’s a commitment. To earn respect from your peers you need to make that commitment, prove that commitment. I believe that for a foreigner in a running career the depth of that commitment, understanding of the event and your place in it and your place in relation to others is how you are measured.
AB: There is an unmistakable fraternity during fiesta that transcends age, language, income, and other details of life outside of fiesta. This sense of community occurs both in the streets and for those watching. Can you explain, how is this achieved?
Aubrey Powell: Danger = Party. Simple as that. The exhilaration gives way to the party ambience. Plus there are many different contents to the Fiesta besides the Bull running. There’s something for everyone and it’s a great big catharsis for all and sundry for a whole week. There’s the run in the morning, the camaraderie afterwards, the Gigantes parades for the children, traditional dancing competitions, the opening and closing ceremonies, religious rituals, bull jumping, the Bull fights every evening at the Bullring, and there’s eating and drinking…..lots of drinking. Plus for the locals it’s a big money spinner, but at the same time they are very generous, for example, allowing the use of their apartments to view the run each morning. The spirit is just extraordinary and very infectious, and surprisingly, there’s no trouble. It’s also very well organized.
Chris Cary: When you arrive in Pamplona for fiesta you have arrived in a remote part of northern Spain. You have left behind your other life. You take off your suit or whatever you normally wear which also partly defines “ you “ and you put on a white shirt, white trousers and a red sash. In many ways and for many people I have met they are able to just let go and be real. Nobody asks what you do, where you live or what you drive they just engage with “you” and in a world where we are subjected to so much pressure this is very a great relief.
AB: The encierro existed for centuries before Ernest Hemingway wrote about it. Hemingway did not invent Pamplona, but he certainly became its spokesman for earlier generations. How aware of Hemingway are most of the visitors of the fiesta? And how about the long time runners in Pamplona?
Chris Cary: I would say that everyone is aware of Hemingway. Not so many have read The Sun Also Rises and so they don’t really get the original context. Hemmingway was really more interested in the Corrida, bull fighters and bullfighting than he was in running in the encierro, but he help communicate the idea of the Fiesta in a way that in media terms was unprecedented at the time. He was also completely engaged in the Fiesta, which perfectly suited his personality and lifestyle. I think most people who know anything about Hemmingway would understand how compatible the two were.
AB: It is delightful to watch some of the runners try to describe an experience that is difficult to describe. The film opens with Larry Belcher, whose whole face is animated with the wild joy he experiences with the bulls. Did you find that your interviews conveyed what you hoped to communicate in the film?
Aubrey Powell: Of course. All the regular runners are in love with Pamplona and the St Fermin fiesta, and what it represents to them individually. Many have been going for years and it is an annual ritual. They wouldn’t miss a year, and now often their children and their grandchildren accompany them keeping up a tradition of something they discovered many years ago. The camaraderie is intense, and the sense of shared danger is akin to having survived a battle together in a war zone. It was a privilege for me to have shared the experiences of those dedicated runners, driven on by the excitement regardless of fear, and who are so loyal to each other and the encierro.
Chris Cary: Like you said, I think they are trying to describe something that is so deeply personal and emotive that it is impossible to explain it. There is also something that Tom Turley said. Its like trying to describe how and why you love someone so deeply and all you can really say is that its just because you do.
AB: It is said that the story is told in the editing room. In the case of this film, were there other stories you would have liked to tell?
Aubrey Powell: Yes, that of young women runners – which was a grave omission.
Chris Cary: The film we made Bull Runners of Pamplona is, I hope, a fascinating one-hour journey through the subject and introduces the uninitiated to many aspects of the encierro, the fiesta and the people who make it what it has become. There are many other films we could have made and some that I hope we will make.
AB: Who wrote the narration for this movie? There were some brilliant observations about the nature of the encierro.
Chris Cary: That was Po, he has great insight and a special ability to get people to talk and both say what the mean and mean what they say.
AB: Photographer Jim Hollander makes some very good points about how easy it is to forget the danger of encierro and that its good to be reminded that there is a possibility of death. Jim says, “Without the blood, without somebody hurt, you don’t have the emotion of encierro.” Can you talk about that?
Aubrey Powell: Well, it’s the same with motor racing or air shows. People have an expectation of seeing something go wrong. They don’t really want it, but on the other hand they kind of do because deep down they want to test their feelings – can they take it? The only difference during the encierro, and this is the beauty of it, you have a choice to go into that Bull Run or stay out. Nobody says you have to do it. Once you are in, then anything could happen and often does. Nearly every run has some damaged person, and many badly hurt. The man I saw, who had run many times by the way, and was gored up in the neck and through his mouth, right in front of me, would not speak to me two years later as he had been so traumatized by the experience. It’s on TV, it’s recorded on I Phones, still cameras, movie cameras and a million other devices, so people can review the ‘ moment ’ it all goes horribly wrong for some poor soul. So, Jim is absolutely right. The emotions are running high for everyone present, and without some disaster it would be a very tame and unresponsive event – like watching bowls.
Chris Cary: Jim has seen it all, knows everyone and is the finest photographer ever to cover the encierro. In order to appreciate the emotional context of the experience, both runners and observers have to really believe that ‘ YOU CAN DIE OUT THERE’. Every time someone is seriously hurt or sadly loses their life this makes it real for everyone else. If you are running up Estafeta with a 500 kilo bull beside you and you know that you could die there, but the bull is letting you run with him, how huge is that??? At the same time if you are choosing to run for the first time you need to know and believe in the danger before you make the decision. The ‘blood on the streets’ is what brings reality to the decision you are taking and the way in which you have respect for your life.
AB: The city of Pamplona, its residents, and the Spanish people are extraordinarily generous with their city and their fiesta and seem to handle all aspects of San Fermin with grace. Without a doubt, the popularity of Pamplona has created some serious problems. Can you talk about how the city deals with this?
Aubrey Powell: Too many runners are creating a very dangerous environment, especially for those who are inexperienced. Even the pro runners complain that it is overcrowded and difficult for them to run safely. Although there are no regulations as to who can run, unless you are intoxicated, it is remarkable in an age where Health and Safety is on every bureaucrat’s lips, there is no demand for common sense. There needs to be some sort of restriction. A bit like the marathons that are run around the world today. You have to apply, only so many can take part, and there is a Q & A about your health and experience. Makes sense to me.
Chris Cary: It is a logistical nightmare but they are amazing at how they deal with it. There is of course an economic imperative. It provides a huge income to the people of the city at almost every level, but at the same time they are having their fiesta and have invited us to join them. Keeping the city relatively clean is probably the biggest problem. There are of course tens of thousands of drunk people but in the main they are happy drunks not angry ones. For me there are 2 fiestas divided by an encierro. During the day there is an amazing family cultural event with parades, drinking, eating singing and dancing. Everyone from babies to grandparents is involved and just celebrating the joy and vitality of life. In the evening and through the night the younger people party at 100 miles an hour and stay up all night just in case they miss something. In the morning there is an encierro that thrills everyone for a few brief minutes and then sends the nighttime revelers to bed, opening the door for the families come out again.
AB: It was lovely to see some of the other features of fiesta, such as the Giants, the big heads, the Basque songs and dance. It is remarkable that these things have remained as part of the fiesta when so much else in the world has changed. Do you think fiesta San Fermin will remain for years to come?
Aubrey Powell: Yes, I think it will remain the same for now. It’s unlikely that it will change much, however Bull fighting and Bull running may finish one day due to animal rights pressure groups in the European Union as well as Catalunya. Politically it is slowly, poco de poco, moving that way, and then San Fermin would be over, as the Bulls are the fiesta. It’s an important tradition without which what would be the point of going on.
Chris Cary: Yes, in fact I am certain that long after the encierro has stopped the other cultural events will remain. There are so many beautiful traditions bedded much deeper than the running with the bulls. There is one Gigante (I cant remember the name) who you will see clutching a handful of babies dummies (pacifiers). When children reach the age where they need to stop being pacified with a dummy the parents take them to the Plaza San Francisco during fiesta to visit this Gigante and give their pacifier up, and that is the end of it. Grandparents and parents for generations have engaged in this ritual and long may it continue.
AB: I read somewhere that one of the many beautiful aspects of fiesta is that everyone is similarly dressed in red and white (and indeed, it’s a lovely sight) and that no one tries to stand out or has commercial endorsements. This aspect of anonymity is part of what makes it deeply communal experience. Has this been enforced, or runners naturally observe it?
Aubrey Powell: The dress code is used by everyone now, and that is part of the communal spirit of the St Fermin fiesta. It didn’t used to be so in the old days, when young men ran in their best suits, and a hat, with a red kerchief tied around their necks to impress the girls. It is a great tradition and one that transcends all faiths, creeds, sex and nationality.
Chris Cary: Respectfully and naturally observed by both runners and fiesta goers. You can wear what you like, there are no rules, but if you don’t wear white with red you look so out of place I think it would be uncomfortable.
AB: What are the rules of the encierro?
Aubrey Powell: There are no rules. That is the wonder of it all. Only unwritten etiquette, as I have explained earlier.
Chris Cary: You cannot run if you are drunk. If the Police think you are drunk they can escort you off the street. You cannot run if you are carrying a camera or a bag because it a danger to you an others near you. Other than that you are on your own. There are things you shouldn’t do. You should not push another person, you should not touch the bulls, if you are injured you should exit the street under the fence not over. If you fall down you should stay down and lay down but most important – ENJOY.
AB: Would you like to add anything else?
Chris Cary: As you pointed out we met some amazing people making the film and each one had their own little story and stories to tell. There was one story in the film that was beautifully told visually but not fully explained. There is a sequence made up of film footage and still pictures showing a bull, that had become separated from the pack, about to attack a man in a blue suit. (The blue suit was homage to the very early runners who ran in their Sunday suits). The man was Rick Musica an American. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong color set against a wall of white. The bull was a 650 kilo animal that had just fallen at the Curva and was absolutely focused on Rick. In an instant another man enters the scene and puts himself between Rick and the bull waving his hand in front of the bull’s eyes to distract it from attack. This is Jose Antonio. The bull turns towards Jose Antonio who, running in a circle, turns the bull more that 180 degrees and then running in front leads the bull down Estafeta to rejoin the rest of the herd. It is a stunning sequence in the film. It was an amazingly selfless and brave thing to do for a friend who was in real danger. It was Jose Antonio’s 50 birthday on that day. He is from another village not far from Pamplona and had never been fully embraced by the Pamplona runners. Jose Antonio is profoundly deaf and does not speak. He is a great runner, now recognized warmly by all, but uniquely his entire experience with the people in the street and with the bulls is in absolute silence.
Aubrrey Powell: Pamplona treated me well and allowed me to present one of my most favorite films that I have made to date. A magical and very special place, and I will be going back.
AB: Thank you both for taking the time to talk about your work here on the Hemingway Project.
The Bull Runners of Pamplona can be rented or purchased from http://www.journeyman.tv/63629/documentaries/bull-runners-of-pamplona-hd.html
Here is the trailer: