SXSW Film

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SXSW Film

To Dance With Death: 'The Matador'

In town for the world premiere of their documentary, The Matador, photographer and first-time filmmaker Stephen Higgins and his co-director, Nina Gilden Seavey, spoke with the Chronicle about the ambivalence they feel toward bullfighting, the role of the matador in Spanish society, and the fine line between art and death.

Austin Chronicle: Did you come into the film with a particular impression of bullfighting, and was that impression changed when the movie was done?

Stephen Higgins: When we started shooting, I had a huge amount of respect for matadors but also an awareness that what they do may be morally questionable. Now I have a deeper understanding of what the matador does, having been along with him and seeing what he has to do to stay focused, the level of concentration and dedication. But I still have the same ambivalent feeling about bullfighting, because it has both beautiful and objectionable elements.

AC: Early on in the film, one of the interviewees says, "The matador is a hero because he faces death for us."

Nina Gilden Seavey: That's right at the beginning of the movie for a reason. Because unless you understand the matador's raison d'être, bullfighting devolves into a sport where men just kill animals. And it's not. The matador's role in Latin culture is iconographic. People go up to him, and they touch him, the way you would touch a religious figure.

SH: The people who really love bullfighting see the matador as an arbiter of death. He stands on the line between life and death and shows people how to live bravely and gracefully in the face of danger. For the matador, bullfighting is an art, like writing or painting. It's reaching in and finding your core and showing it to other people. The bull is his instrument, his artistic material. It's strange, though, because ultimately the artistic material of the bullfighter is something that can kill him.

NGS: And then there's the paradox of killing the thing you love. The matador has no antipathy for the bull; on the contrary, to him it's a reverential beast – it's the cause and the object of his art. And yet during the course of the ritual he kills the thing that he loves. Which is profoundly counterintuitive, but it's at the heart of the ritual.

Saturday, March 15, 7pm, ACC

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

The Matador

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