19/12/2011 17:27 GMT | Updated 18/02/2012 05:12 GMT

Little Matador - When Bull Fighters and Vegetarians Make Friends

Making a film about bullfighting is a tricky thing. One cameraman turned down the job on ethical grounds. A couple of well-known Mexican musicians said "no way" to doing the score, they hated bullfighting. "It's not about the rights and wrongs of bullfighting", we said, myself and my co-director Gabriel Range. "That's disgusting and chickening out", said one friend. "Hey, I eat steak, what's the difference?", asked another cameraman, who took a job.

That bullfighting is cruel is a given. But those who participate in it say it's so much more. Our film was about child bullfighters - why on earth, in this day and age, a small child would chose to put him or herself in front of a large, bellowing beast?

How could their parents let them? And our challenge was to make a film with characters that an audience - even an audience that hates bullfighting - could like. Not just that - even if you hate bullfighting, you might just find yourself cheering the child on because you know what's at stake.

Watching a grown man fight a bull is one thing. The dynamic changes when it's a small child in the ring. Especially when that child is getting battered, trampled, head butted. Especially when that child bursts into tears. And most of all, when you know that child and you realise that for him or her success in the ring is not just another step towards fame and fortune but a quest for love, respect, approval and a sense of identity.

We feature three characters in the film. Joel is nine when we first meet him. He bullfights because he needed to find a surrogate family. Joel's dad went to America before he was born. As a seven-year-old, wandering the streets, he went to the bullring and the matadors took him under their wing.

In 12-year-old Andrea's case, her heart was broken when her beloved dad abandoned the family for another woman. Her bullfighting is a way to punish the dad and empower herself - perhaps one day earn enough to buy her mum a house, take the family out of poverty - "be a somebody, not a nobody".

Michelito Lagravère, 10 when we met, wants to be the youngst matador in the world. It is certainly his own dream - but part of him also wants to pick up where his dad's career ended. Dad didn't become a superstar, but Michelito will bring the Lagravère name into the bullfighting history books.

That bullfighting exists at all today is a mystery. I had lived in Spain for two years but never, on principle, went to a bullfight. But I was fascinated by the idea of children fighting - for a documentary maker, the world of bullfighting, by turns beautiful and harrowing, steeped in colour and medieval custom, is a dream.

I came to really like the bullfighters we met over the two years of making the documentary. They put their suspicion aside and let us in, they trusted us not to shaft them. They accepted me - in restaurants, matadors would shout at the waiter, "No meat for her, she's a vegetarian."

I was afraid for them when they fought. Bullfighters understand non-aficionados find the corrida cruel, but they insist it has the right to exist. For them it is not a sport but an art form.

"The bullfight is beauty itself", Michel Lagravère, Michelito's dad, told us. "The bullfight is one of the few things that remains constant. There's no trickery. There's emotion, sensitivity, drama, and also cruelty, that's the truth. Maybe the animal will die, but maybe it will be me."

Michel has been gored 17 times. His hopes of being a superstar matador ended with a near-fatal goring in Madrid. In the new year, Michelito, now 14, vows to become a full matador, fighting bulls up to 600 kg. He has already made bullfighting history by becoming a novillero, or semi-professional matador, aged 11. "I can't stop him," says Michel, "this is his own dream, his passion."

Michelito has been injured many times. Knowing him, it is terrible to watch as he gets hit in the ring. These are the occupational hazards, he says, you could just as easily be injured by slipping in the shower. He accepts the risks. "My dad says that in bullfighting, sooner or later, I will definitely get a goring to remember, because for all you are a very good bullfighter, and however beautiful the bulls you fight, whether they're big or small, it is certain they will give you a goring or a blow."

And if he dies?

"Well, I don't know. If God is anti-bullfighting then he'll send me to hell. Or it could be that he was a judge of the bullring and he sends me to heaven!"

True Stories: Little Matador, Tuesday 20 December, 10pm, More 4