Sparks fly throughout the POV documentary “Brimstone & Glory,” a 60-minute film that chronicles the generations-old art of fireworks making in Tultepec, a small Mexican town where three-quarters of the population work in the pyrotechnic trade.
The film, which airs Monday on PBS, looks at the days and months leading up to the National Pyrotechnic Festival, a 10-day event that honors the patron saint of fireworks makers, San Juan de Dios. The explosive celebration, which attracts crowds from all over the region north of Mexico City, is a chance for the town’s fireworks artisans to show off their most ambitious and often dangerous creations.
German filmmaker Viktor Jakovleski follows one family in particular, looking at the cottage industry, culture and festival through the eyes of their preteen son, Santiago. The boy loves and fears the family trade, and for good reason.
He’s taught how to manufacture firecrackers by old men with no fingers left on their hands, and how to handle combustible material by his loving father whose work can be seen in the dazzling displays that light up the festival’s streets and sky.
Few words are needed throughout this simple and quite sweet documentary, which was shot over four years. Subtitled in English, viewers watch men equipped with Go-Pro cameras build stories-high “castles of fire,” giant wooden towers decorated with multiple pinwheels of fireworks. The view from the top is dizzying, especially when a lightning storm rolls in and ignites one of the features on a tower.
The main event, however, is the parade of “bulls” — giant floats crafted from wood, wire and reed frames then covered in what looks to be papier-mâché. They’re painted with bright colors, and propelled down the street by their proud creators and groups of revelers.
But the thrill in this bull run is not being trampled by a stampede or impaled by horns. The man-made bulls are loaded with fireworks that shoot out at the crowd in every direction. Revelers try to get as close as possible to the spark-shooting beasts without getting burned, or worse.
Fire trucks and paramedics posted on the perimeter are evidence of the danger of this festival where injuries and even casualties are part of the tradition.
A veteran paramedic who trains new EMTs advises them to treat those with the worst burns first. But since there’s also some animosity toward the fire department by young men proving their machismo, he says “People who shout [at us] and drunkards go last.”
Santiago is cautious and even afraid of running with the bulls — and the dangers of working in the trade. But he’s also taken by the thrill and beauty of a billion exploding sparks.
He explains that a bull covered in fireworks is not just a visual spectacle but an emotional spark so people can “feel something.” “The scars on our skin are from when the saint reaches down and pulls us from the fire,” he says.
“Brimstone & Glory” dives deep into a subculture where craftsmanship wins out over mass production. The film can be a little too in love with its subject at times, so be prepared for lots and lots of footage of colorful pyrotechnics. But it deftly captures the skill, passion and peril behind the fireworks, as well as the love of a family whose livelihood is rooted in this booming trade.
“Brimstone & Glory
Channel: PBS SoCal/KOCE
When: July 2, 10 p.m.