If you watch any international news at all, you’ve no doubt seen clips of bulls hoofing it through the narrow cobblestone streets of Pamplona, chasing, running alongside, and being pursued by throngs of runners, many of them using rolled-up newspapers to ward off the horns. Those newspapers are also used to distract the bulls if they keep goring someone who has fallen or was upended by the 2000-pound beasts. Every morning during the festival of San Fermin, between July 7-14, the bulls are run through the barricaded streets into the bullring, joined by two to three thousand runners.

During San Fermin, Pamplona’s population of 197,000 triples, but because everyone is gathered in the old section of town to watch or participate in the famed running of the bulls, it feels like a lot more people than that. I was there in 1992 and you could hardly move through the crowd, there were so many people—most of them (myself included) dressed in traditional fiesta attire: long white pants, white shirt, and a red waistband and neckerchief, the latter of which, I learned, is a reminder of San Fermin’s martyrdom. Pamplona is named for the Roman general Pompey, who in 68 B.C. camped near a Basque settlement on the Rio Arga and soon established an outpost. San Fermin, one of the city’s two patron saints, was the son of the last leader of the Roman garrison, whose throat was slit because he converted to Christianity.

For many locals, San Fermin remains at its core a deeply religious festival, and they wear red to commemorate San Fermin’s blood that was shed. For them, the running of the bulls is a ritual. The family I sat next to at the bullfight who shared their picnic lunch with me said that it was also a rite-of-passage for many Spanish boys. Their grandfathers ran, their fathers ran, and now their son was running to prove his manhood. Sometimes generations run together. To them, the tourists who come each year to get drunk and run with the bulls as Hemingway did (and wrote about in The Sun Also Rises) are a corruption—even more so now that young foreign women are beginning to run.

But a large number of adult Spaniards also run each year, and “Running of the Bulls,” a documentary from Questar Entertainment, does a nice job of trying to get at the various reasons why people participate. The filmmaker interviewed those who consider it a religious celebration and spoke with a family whose son’s first run was paralleled by the father’s last. Tourists and Hemingway are only briefly touched upon, as is the case with the nine days of wild celebration of drinking and singing and dancing in the streets that continues all through the night.

The focus is on the running of the bulls, and tangentially on the amateur bullfight. Locals have strong feelings about protocol, and I witnessed that first-hand. You’re not supposed to touch the bulls or pull their tails as they run, though many tourists do. But don’t get caught doing that in the amateurs. I witnessed a foreigner who kept pulling at a bull’s tail even after locals warned him not to. Soon there was shouting, then punching and kicking, and a crowd of people tossed the beaten man over the barrera, where an ambulance waited.

The main focus of “Running of the Bulls” is an illuminating one, because where there are “don’ts” there are also “dos,” and the filmmakers interview a number of locals, Spaniards from outside the area, and an American who has participated for many years.

Everyone is afraid, one runner admits. But “you need to make a distinction between fear and panic,” he adds. You have to keep your head, because everyone around you is losing theirs. People panic. People push others down. You want to stay upright, or you’re done for.

“When you walk into the streets it’s like entering the Roman coliseum, another runner says.

“If you have any doubts, you’ve already lost the race,” says another.

These guys, who return to start the race the same spot each year, train three hours a day and talk of speed, because the first ones to funnel into the bullring with the bulls are hailed as the bravest of the brave. Why? Because there are fewer distractions, and the bulls are more agitated and likely to charge.

What constitutes the best run? Running on the horns. “Let them come close to you and stay in front of them as long as you can.” Even if your run only lasts 20 seconds, the men interviewed on camera say it’s worth it because it’s not how far or long you run, but how well you run. With a good run you can feel good about yourself all day . . . until the next run, that is.

Listening to them is like listening to surfers talk about catching the perfect wave. The serious runners who return year after year are hooked on the adrenalin rush, but for some it’s also clearly a way to not just feel alive by getting your blood going and confronting fear and death, but to also feel young. “Eight days you’re out here playing Peter Pan,” one of them remarks.

This fascinating documentary does a lot of things right. For one thing, it’s not just a limp summary of the event, and it’s not the typical blend of talking heads and stock footage. There’s plenty of film here that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Plus, the men interviewed on camera are really interesting, while what they have to say comes in short doses, so that footage of the running of the bulls dominates the narrative. That keeps the energy level high and the pacing brisk. The structure is also superb. Though there are token blocks of history and Hemingway thrown in, the main structure consists of breaking down the four-minute run by stretches of street, relying on some of the regulars from those stretches to talk about each “chunk” of the run.  As a result, “Running with the Bulls” succeeds in capturing not just the feel and flavor of the Pamplona event, but delves into the complex reasons why different people run and the strategies involved.  You walk away from this feeling satisfied that you’ve learned something about one of the most notorious annual events.

But it’s not for the squeamish. These aren’t the kind of clips you see on a sanitized newscast. People get repeatedly gored, and you watch one fellow—who’s later interviewed—gored up his anus, and the bull just keeps going after him.

It’s 903 yards of pure hell or adrenalin rush, depending on how well you’ve run. I personally witnessed half a dozen people trampled by the crowd and funneled into the arena a full five seconds ahead of the bulls. But in my defense, you had to keep moving with the crowd or get pushed and stomped. I had my chance at a redemptive encounter in the bullring. I and a fellow whom I did not know found ourselves apart from the crowd and suddenly facing a bull, who charged. We hesitated, then split, and as I looked over my shoulder I saw the man go down on his knees, gored in the back and lifted into the air. It could have been me, I thought. And that’s pretty much the sense you get listening to runners in this excellent documentary. The only difference is, these guys keep coming back for more, and “Running of the Bulls” is as much their story as it is Pamplona’s.

The video quality is superb for a DVD. It was obvisoulsy shot using a digital camera. Colors are vibrant, and the reds (which are predominant) don’t bleed at all. Edge delineation and detail are quite good for a standard definition release. “Running of the Bulls” is presented in 16×9 widescreen and has a runtime of 80 minutes.

The audio appears to be an English Dolby Digital 2.0, but it’s robust and full-toned, which is most evident during the interviews and extreme crowd shots.

There are three extras that seem mostly token, given that none of them is longer than two minutes. There’s a short clip on the history of the Pamplona running of the bulls, one that asks “Is the Running of the Bulls Dangerous?” and a third on “Ernest Hemingway and Running of the Bulls.” The latter unfortunately includes a much later photo of Hemingway when he was an “attraction” at Sun Valley, typing outdoors and working on a book that had nothing to do with Pamplona. Another point is a little fuzzy, but these are small matters in an even smaller feature. It’s the film itself that’s worth watching.

Bottom line:
“Running of the Bulls” is the best film I’ve seen on this spectacular annual event in Pamplona. The production values are excellent, the pacing is crisp, there’s never-before-seen graphic footage included, along with a round-up of runners who give you a sense of just how complex this event really is. If you can’t (or won’t) run with them, this is the next best thing. Therre’s some pretty spectacular footage here.

“Running of the Bulls” is priced at $24.99 and is available through Questar Entertainment. A trailer is in the top graphic.