Running with the bulls in 3D

Spectacular new documentary offers a stereoscopic view of Pamplona fiesta

An image from the documentary of a bull colliding with a group of runners in the alley that leads into the Pamplona bullring.
An image from the documentary of a bull colliding with a group of runners in the alley that leads into the Pamplona bullring.

The runners — around 3,000 of them each day — reach the curve. Behind them come a few steers, and then, with their more than 600 kilograms of flesh and muscle, “some of the most dangerous animals on Earth,” in the words of one runner: the fighting bulls.

As they round the curve, one of the bull’s hooves skids over the cobblestones and it crashes down, sliding toward the wooden fencing where the 3D camera has been mounted. When the crash occurs, the audience can only thank their lucky stars they are sitting inside a movie theater, because the horns and nape of the bull are aiming straight at the theater seats.

This is one of the finest moments of Encierro en 3D, a documentary by Olivier van der Zee that premiered last weekend at the Málaga Film Festival and is set to be released in Spanish theaters in around 15 cities on June 28.

The film is an ambitious take on the most spectacular part of Pamplona’s sanfermines celebrations, which are held every year between July 6 and 14. The movie naturally features some spectacular 3D shots, not just of the bull running but also of the chupinazo — the firing of a rocket that officially marks the beginning of the festival and takes place within the small and densely packed city hall square. “We protected the cameras as best we could, but even then the odd tripod ended up bent out of shape,” the director says.

We protected the cameras, but the odd tripod ended up bent up”

Another added value is the insight offered from veteran runners about each stretch of 826-meter bull-running route, which travels along four streets in the old part of town. Although most people might not know it, each street has its own set of secrets and emotions. “It was also essential for [the runners] to have the ability to tell their story, and some of them had to be foreigners so that they could explain why they come back year after year,” says Van der Zee.

Another salient moment in the movie takes place at the 2009 festivities, when the film crew wrapped two buildings with metal frames and stretched a cable between both. They then hung a special 3D camera — a Russian prototype — from the cable in order to create an unbelievable aerial shot to allow the audience to follow the herd along the entire stretch of Estafeta street.

“That ate up a large chunk of the budget,” the director notes. “In 2010 we didn’t film anything, and I did the filming in 2011 and 2012. I also viewed hundreds of hours’ worth of [state television network] TVE archive footage, searching for their best shots.”

Made on a one-million-euro budget, the documentary took four years to complete. The Dutch documentary maker, who has been living in the Basque town of San Sebastián for the last nine years, has released two other documentaries since starting work on the movie: 778 — La chanson de Roland (2011) and El último magnate (2012). The TVE archival footage was also transferred to 3D, and its sound effects were accentuated during post-production: at one point you can actually hear a horn tearing the t-shirt of a young man who gets dragged along the cobblestones for several meters.

You can hear a horn tearing the t-shirt of a young man

“Rationally I can understand the runners, but emotionally, only to a certain degree. I think you can only understand it after running yourself. I haven’t done so, nor am I planning to,” he admits with a laugh.

Encierro en 3D was a technically complex project, say its producers, and they had a hard time trying to finance it. But now that it’s over, and after producing versions in 2D and in English, it is likely that Ernest Hemingway’s long shadow will favor international sales.

“I want the audience to experience the emotion of it, to understand why the legendary New York runner Joe Distler has been coming back to Pamplona every year for the last 45 years,” says Van der Zee. “I didn’t know the first thing about it when I started out. Of course I had seen it on TV as a kid, but it seemed like a faraway thing, like the Man on the Moon. I didn’t know how expressive the bulls were on the street, their aggressiveness, their violence. At first the producers asked me for help to conduct the English-language interviews, and that’s where I got emotionally hooked.”

The documentary does not conceal the wounds and the blood, but neither does it revel in them. There are injuries, yes, there is pain, yes, and yes, there are fatalities. One of the testimonies is from José Antonio Jimeno, father of the last casualty of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Daniel Jimeno, who was a third-generation runner from a family with a long tradition of participation in the sanfermines.

“He sums up the spirit of the event: his son died, but he continues to watch it.”