Woman fights bull. It sounds like a classic man-bites-dog story, for there could hardly be a more traditionally macho contest than that of the corrida . And yet the Spanish-language documentary Ella Es el Matador (She Is the Matador) (some PBS stations, 10 p.m.) is neither titillated nor outraged by the sexism of the bull ring. Instead this season-opener for the documentary showcase POV sensitively follows two female matadors, one a pro, the other an apprentice, as they struggle for legitimacy in the tradition-bound yet sleazy world of bullfighting. (Toronto-area viewers take note that local PBS-affiliate WNED will not air this documentary until Sunday at 11 p.m.)
First we meet Eva Florencia, a young Italian who ran away from home as a teenager to pursue a highly romantic vision of bullfighting in Spain and is now attempting to complete the 25 professional fights that will earn her the title matador. She is like any figure skater or ski jumper with Olympic aspirations, dreaming a dream of glamour and achievement while slogging away in the gym, yet for her the ultimate physical thrill is a death-defying encounter with a gigantic bull. Ironically, since a successful matador must subdue and then kill the bull, she clearly adores the animals and also creates rather drippy surrealist paintings of them in her spare time.
Will her dream be gored? Florencia is a hugely likeable character, visibly athletic, physically graceful, determined and tough, but when we meet Maria Paz Vega, it is hard not to conclude that it takes even sterner stuff to earn the title matador. Vega is the only professional female matador currently active - although a few retired ones are also interviewed here - and she is a steely character in the ring. A native of Malaga, she comes from a family of boys, all of them would-be matadors, but she is the only one who could cut it. One brother now works as her assistant. (A job that can involve jumping in front of the bull.) In one scene, she is shown at the seaside in a bikini matter-of-factly explaining her various scars.
A historian interviewed explains that there have always been female bullfighters, but that Spain had tended to crack down on them in conservative times. There was a 30-year ban on women in the corrida under the Franco dictatorship, a ban successfully challenged in the courts by Angela Hernandez in the 1970s. Still, Florencia has troubles getting the fights she needs, and Vega regularly travels to South America to make her living because she can't always get fights in the best arenas at home. The problem does not appear to be the fans, who are shown warmly welcoming the women's performances, but rather the agents who control what is, despite its historic traditions, a particularly sleazy form of showbiz.
Of course, a lot of PBS viewers are going to be outraged that this documentary does not denounce a blood sport. Florencia's father is the more intriguing interview in that regard; he and her mother tried to talk their daughter out of bullfighting, but eventually travelled to Spain to visit her and see her perform. Like all first-timers, he says, he rooted for the poor bull, but as he has watched the audiences, he has become convinced they are not there to see blood but to experience some indefinable excitement.
Like him, we may find ourselves drawn to the sport, or at least appreciative of the immense skill involved. In that regard Ella Es el Matador is highly successful point-of-view work that exposes the world of the bullfight through the unique perspective of these unusual insiders.
Cities of the Underworld (History, 8 p.m.) launches a new season with back-to-back episodes, starting with a particularly spooky look underneath London and the surrounding countryside. Your ever-melodramatic host Don Wildman explores a series of underground chambers that were the 18th-century headquarters for the Hellfire Club, a gathering of debauched aristocrats who may or may not have dabbled in devil worship. Then he goes into chalk caves with a witchcraft expert to decode the ancient folk symbols inscribed there to protect the miners. And finally, he visits the London sewers where popular historians speculate Jack the Ripper retreated to avoid detection.
How It's Made (Discovery, 8 p.m.) visits the Alps to explore the mysteries of Swiss cheese-making, a laborious process still done largely by hand, but never does explain the holes. Tonight's episode also covers the largely automated forging of hammers, as well as the manufacture of coloured pencils and roller skates.
Dirty Business (HGTV, 8:30 p.m.) sees the landscape team transform a tight urban backyard with a deck, a patch of lawn, the back of a garage and lots of sunshine into a family-friendly oasis. The space still features a deck, a patch of lawn and the back of a garage, but somehow lots of functionality and privacy, and a bit of shade have been added to the mix.