Every year, the people of Tultepec, Mexico gather for a fireworks festival that culminates in the burning of colossal, handcrafted toros. As it turns out, the running of these papier-mâché bulls is more dangerous than the running of the real ones. Since 1910, 15 people have died during the festivities in Pamplona. Meanwhile, some 56 people have lost their lives in recent years at the National Pyrotechnic Festival. This is no gathering of privileged pseudo hippies, a la Burning Man– even if vividly painted effigies do go up in smoke. Many of the families in Tultepec have worked in the pyrotechnics industry for up to 150 years, and the festival, which dates back just as long, is a point of pride.
Viktor Jakovleski’s Brimstone & Glory, opening Wednesday at Quad Cinema, takes us to the dusty town outside of Mexico City as its residents prepare for the early-March mayhem. You could call this an explosive documentary, but that would be accurate only in the literal sense. In actuality, the hour-long doc was shot in 2015, a year before a massive explosion killed at least 36 people, so the film is more impressionistic than investigative. If you saw Yuri Ancanari’s The Challenge during the Rooftop Films Summer Festival, you have an idea of what to expect.
Still, Brimstone & Glory hardly ignores the danger of thousands of people, many of them liquored to the gills, running and dancing about as fireworks explode all around them. (Picture a mosh pit inside of a steel forge and you’re not far off.) Jakovleski, a German filmmaker based in Berlin, posts up with the medics and films the bloodied, the bandaged, and the blinded.
Participants in the festival believe they’re protected by the patron saint of pyrotechnic workers, San Juan de Dios, who, legend has it, managed to save would-be victims from a hospital fire without getting burned. But the people of Tultepec also know their work is dangerous. A mother says she doesn’t want her son to follow his father’s footsteps into the fireworks industry, because her sister lost a child when a burning bull fell on him. Unfortunately, fireworks are the only game in town– some 60 percent of residents work in the industry. That much becomes clear when the camera pans over the barren landscape to show dozens of cinderblock sheds marked with the word PELIGROSO. It’s here where men, women and children mix gunpowder, sulphur, and saltpeter, sometimes in an improvised fashion. “We’re not chemists,” admits one man while acknowledging the danger of the work.
Throughout the film, which is dedicated to all who’ve lost their lives in the industry, a soundtrack of tribal drumming ratchets up the tension as men operating in something similar to Mardi Gras krewes test out explosives, build the steel-skeletoned bulls, and make dizzying climbs as they assemble the “castles of fire”— towers that hold massive, spark-spewing pinwheels. Jakovleski’s slow-motion footage of the pyrotechnics, accompanied by orchestral music a la Philip Glass, is surreal and hypnotic. Get lost in it and you may just end up replacing Pamplona with Tultepec on your bucket list.