Using grainy 16mm stock, director Tom Haines’ stunning film captures the drama, confusion and traditions of the two-day Luminarias fiesta in San Bartolome de Pinares, Spain, with a rich soundtrack of an original Unkle score and a reading of the Rafael Alberti poem Galope.
The festival takes place every January and involves “cleansing” horses and their riders as they pass through burning pine brush. Dating back 500 years, it evolved from a purification ceremony around the time of the Great Plague. A priest blesses the riders and the horses, before they are paraded through the town with a pageant of musicians. Riders then loop along the cobbled streets as the huge fires are lit, gathering speed until they dramatically charge through the flames.
We asked Haines for his account of the shoot…
I am a Spainophile. You heard it here first. I travel there regularly and love the people, the culture and its contradictions. I’d seen some incredible stills of Luminarias, which got me really excited and I began to hatch a scheme to get out there and find out more about it.
Through some friends in Madrid I got in touch with some of the locals of San Bartolome de Pinares (the mountainous village which holds the annual fiesta) and began a dialogue with them. Finding out information was difficult, people were hazy, facts were light on the ground the only thing that was certain was the date (16th January), the horses and the fire – everything else was a mystery.
But I like the discovery aspect of documentaries and the lack of absolutes was actually a motivator. I’d been speaking to James Lavelle [of Unkle repute] around the end of 2011 – he was interested in what I’d told him about Luminarias, I showed him images and discussed my plans – at which point he was quite excited about it. So I felt I had a project on my hands and jumped in headlong.
January is traditionally a quiet period for a freelancer, and this worked in my favour as two people I really wanted to get on my shoot were Steve Annis, my tried and trusted cinematographer, and Andy Paddon, a seasoned sound recordist who I’ve worked with before. Both were free and willing as long as there was enough jamon, chorizo and patatas bravas at the other end to keep them warm.
I arrived a few days before the 16th to organise a few preliminary things, I’d managed to rope in a great producer called Ilduara Lamas who’s enthusiasm was about double mine, so I knew I was on to a good thing.
We made an initial visit to the village to meet people, scope the layout and so on. It’s a tiny village full of winding cobbled streets, which were lined with huge ready made pyres of pine-brush standing about ten meters high with kids jumping on them playfully, getting lost in the branches.
The weather was touch and go; rumors of a snowy deluge gave us cause for concern – could we even make it in? Would we make it out? It was hard to marry up the images of empty, sanguine streets with the dramatic images I’d seen and the scenes I’d imagined.
At some point Ilduara ordered pigs ears as part of our lunch. They were chewy.
Back to Madrid & time to welcome the crew and organize equipment.
The 16th January 2012.
We’d arrived the day before, heading north-east from Madrid, through miles of newly built faceless suburbs until the sierra opens up and gives way to the mountains.
Climbing in altitude we saw the snow-capped mountaintops and passed through a chain of pueblos. Arriving in San Bartolome with a camera crew, no matter how small is a conspicuous affair. Locals in the Pension we stayed in would sidle up to us one by one giving us bits of stories, passionate anecdotes even bursting into song. The fiesta had already started. It was 8 in the morning.
We wanted to film and record some interviews first and spoke to a few locals including Montaña (the man at the beginning of the film) – who we filmed while he shod a horse in a thin flurry of snow. He proudly showed us photos of him jumping through a huge 10ft flame a few years before that had been in Publico. Anticipation was growing.
The event itself was pure chaos. The best kind of chaos – there’s no elf & safety stage-management here, and very little indication of what will happen when, despite our best efforts to find out.
A priest reads a long a dreary sermon which relates to San Anton and can bearly be heard over the excited chatter on the street. Locally made liquor is passed around, shared among riders and public alike and horses start gathering in droves in the plaza mayor.
I’d heard tales of hundreds of horses, a battalion of animals from neighboring villages – but we had no idea of numbers, once you are there and the fires are lit, the smoke fills the streets, its disorientating, asphyxiating and if you are wielding a camera you soon find yourself bumping into the huge animals.
The roots of Luminarias are Christo-pagan, it evolved out of a purification ceremony that started as a means of treating livestock and purging the great plague. People superstitiously cling on to the belief in purification and as a result jump with children of all ages, pregnant women and mares all pass through the fire.
Once the jumping has started it continues on for about an hour and a half, riders come in waves, continuously jumping over the 20 or so enormous fires that are in 15 meter intervals around the streets. We had to jostle for space as there’re as many cameras in action as horses. My intrepid cameraman Steve shows little fear when faced with a cantering stallion, getting perilously close and at times I have to yank him out of the way so that he doesn’t get a hoof to the face or end up in the fire.
As the fires peter out and the horses shuffle off, the fiesta moves into phase two, meat and drink are brought out in large quantities and the pine-brush bonfires become a chain of barbeques. We were invited along to join most of them and once we’d regrouped, we head over to Alfredo’s, who was cooking up some Ternero on a griddle.
Everything smelt of ash and smoke, our nostrils were black, and our faces felt like they’d aged about ten years in the heat of the fires – that last drink before bed felt well earned and I peeled off the layers of thermals to hit the hay.