A Stunning, Controversial Documentary Look at the Conflicting Notions of Big-Game Hunting.
Directed by Shaul Schwartz & Christina Clusiau/2017
Trophy is a documentary looking in-depth at the complicated issues of the depleting numbers of animals on our planet since 1900, and the relationship with big-game hunting, breeding, and wildlife conservation efforts that proves to be more multi-faceted than simply wanting to “save the animals” from extinction. This film starts off with what you think is an agenda, complete with heroes and villains, and by the time it is all over, no one fits into a certain mold. The fact is that so much is playing a part in rapid depletion of animal populations such as that of the rhino, the elephant, and various predator animals, this film can only really begin to scratch the surface.
While Shaul Schwarz has seven directorial credits to his name, and Christina Clusiau is making her directorial debut with Trophy, both come from a cinematography background. With that in mind, I must say that this film looks fantastic. They are able to capture the lush beauty and landscape of several African countries including South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, as well as the rugged rural landscapes of West Texas, and the compact urban backdrop of London in the United Kingdom.
Starting in Las Vegas, Trophy takes us to the largest hunting convention, hosted by Safari Club International (SCI), where we meet hunters such as Philip Glass, a Texas-based sheep breeder, who longs to bag the “Big Five” hunting trophies in the world consisting of the elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, and rhino. At these conventions, companies from all over the world offer the latest tech, weaponry, gear, and hunting safari packages a hunter could desire.
Christo Gomes runs such a company. He runs the Mabula Pro Safaris in South Africa, which offers guided safaris for hunters worldwide. Charging between $25,000 and $100,000, a hunter can come and kill a preselected animal of the client’s choice, with 70% of his client base originating in the United States. Christo Gomes uses speciality breeding to cater to the various tastes and trends of the world’s wealthiest hunters.
John Hume is a man on a mission to save the Rhino from extinction through breeding farms. At first we believe ourselves to be witnessing the poaching of a rhino when we first meet John, but his team, headed by a veterinarian are seen tranquilizing a rhino on his farm, and then proceeding to saw off its horn. Moments later the Rhino is up and walking it off. We learn that poachers will kill a rhino for its horn, but that within two years, another horn would grow back.
John argues that there is no need to kill this animal when they could breed the animal back from the edge of extinction, and sell “legal” rhino horns without causing harm. He refers to a rhino and its ever re-generating horn like the goose that lays the golden egg. This is because rhino horns now exceed gold in terms of its value. His cutting of the horn is to keep poachers from killing his animal needlessly for what it doesn’t have. The only problem is that the South African government has made rhino horns illegal in the name of protecting them, but has seen even more killed since the law was passed due to poachers trying to take what they can’t legally have.
With an argument of “if it pays, it stays”, cynics claim that if you can charge a lot for an animal, especially the right to hunt it, then it becomes more worth protecting than others. With hunters coming more and more to Africa to go after elephants, rhinos, and lions, many of the great species of the world are teetering on the cusp of extinction.
One man, Chris Moore, is a Zimbabwean wildlife officer who is tasked with heading up an anti-poaching campaign in the local communities where he is stationed. While he is commissioned with protecting the wild animals, he must put down some when they threaten the lives and livelihood of the community. Ironically, as he fights poachers, he also subsidizes his work by bringing in big hunters like Philip Glass. So the man tasked with protecting animals, pays for it by allowing some of the animals to be killed.
Philip Glass is set up to be the villain, as a Texas, gun-toting hunter who just wants to kill everything as a way to put it on his wall, and ultimately make his late-father proud of him. And while the film leads you to make this assumption of Glass as the antagonist, his is a complicated position as well. He pays to kill these animals, and obviously loves hunting. But he also believes what he is told at the conventions, that the money he spends to hunt a single animal will be poured back into the communities in African countries who will use that money to preserve the species he goes to hunt.
He, as a sheep breeder, sees the inevitability of animals as food, and meeting other useful needs of the human population, so while admitting he loves the animals he breeds, he also knows they will one day die for a purpose that makes his life better. He teaches his son to hunt as well, seeing it as a way of fulfilling God’s charge to man in Genesis to subdue the earth, and he sees it as do what you will and use it all for the benefit of the human race. Conversely, he feels closer to the animal he has killed, and believes he is bringing it honor that it would not have otherwise. This is echoed by the statements of a taxidermist in the film as well.
Trophy doesn’t arrive at any hard and fast conclusions, but it does what it sets out to do and that is get people talking about the best way to save these animals from extinction, and allow for the commerce that comes from it to sustain so many people’s lives. Whether that should come from hunting, breeding, protected animal farms, or legalizing certain traded items like Rhino horns, will have to be up to each viewer to decide. All I know is that the film makes it difficult to see one clear-sided direction one should go, which means, they don’t have a dog in the race… they just know that something must change.