TROPHY (2017) directed by Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau explores the world of big game hunting of endangered exotic African species set against a backdrop of declining animal populations due to poaching and a loss of wildlife habitat, and examines its implications as a key component within conservation strategies.
Trophy hunting is big game hunting of selective wildlife for recreational purposes, not for sustenance needs. It’s an expensive enterprise and out of the reach of many and falls within the domain of individuals with the means and resources to hunt lions, elephants, rhinos, water buffalo, and other big game species for sport. Big guns and professional guides help trophy hunters find targets from a safe distance and/or they are hunted in fenced enclosures. The trophy is the animal or its parts which may be mounted and displayed but it is also about the bragging rights of having bagged a big game animal and having photographs taken next to your fallen prey to share and post on social media to shout to the world, “Look at me. Ain’t I special!” No doubt many viewers will find the killing of these majestic animals for pleasure morally reprehensible, and some may even see it as a glamourized form of poaching. Even though the argument is made that the revenues generated from trophy hunting provides financial support to fund conservation efforts such as anti-poaching efforts, the hunting-conservation link fails to stand up to scrutiny. Nevertheless, the documentary poses a fascinating paradox. Is the survival of endangered African species tied to their role as a commodity to be consumed by the rich for their personal pleasure and exploitation? As Will Travers puts it, “if it pays, it stays,” or as Chris Moore frames the issue, “fighting to save it so someone else can kill it.”
Schwarz and Clusiau begin with a wide angle shot of a hunter lookout located in a field, a father and his young son approaching, entering, and then, cutting to close ups of the father and son discussing and preparing for the kill. The father lets the son take the first shot and the father finishes off the animal. The film cuts to the father preparing the photographic shot and then, shooting images of his son grinning ear to ear while holding the antlers of the dead stag in his hands. The documentary switches continents, to Africa, to John Hume’s ranch, and the harvesting of rhino horn, a means to protect them from poachers. Then, it’s back to the USA, to a first person interview with Philip Glass, a Dorper Sheep Breeder, in Water Valley, Texas, about the commodification of animals.
Schwarz and Clusiau present multiple viewpoints on trophy hunting and its relationship to conservancy. Many weigh in including John Hume, a South African rhino farmer, Christo Gomes, Hunting Outfitter, Mabula Pro Safaris, Joe Hosmer, President, the Safari Club International Foundation, Adam Roberts, CEO, Born Free USA, Craig Parker, Ecologist and Author, Chris Moore, Wildlife Officer and Anti-Poacher, Travis Courtney, Taxidermist, and Philip, a trophy hunter, one of the several hunters featured in the documentary. The film focuses on John Hume and his conservation efforts to protect his rhinos, Philip, the hunter, on his quest to bag the big five, and Chris Moore, Wildlife Officer, on his efforts to stop poaching in his Zambezi Valley community in Zimbabwe. The film also highlights the public outrage trophy hunting sparked when an American dentist killed a beloved African lion called Cecil.
The documentary has many layers which gives it a depth and situates it within a socio-political framework of animal welfare. Some of the most breathtaking images are the aerial shots of Africa’s wildlife roaming free, and some of the most dismal are images of penned lions and tigers. But, some of the most difficult to watch were seeing animals shot and die in real time on screen. The film is well-crafted making use of diverse angle shots, cut aways of Las Vegas, Nevada, and London, England, first person interviews, archival footage, still photography, television footage, social media clips, narration, footage of the debate between John Hume and Will Travers, former CEO of Born Free Foundation, footage of the arguments for and against lifting the ban on the sale of rhino horn in a South African courtroom, and editing techniques to create a powerful and thought provoking documentary.
If you want to understand what’s going on with the state of play with Africa’s endangered species, then TROPHY will serve as an excellent primer. Schwarz and Clusiau have woven together many visual elements to create a compelling film where profit and narcissism meets misery and exploitation of some of the world’s most majestic animals set against a backdrop of Africa’s natural beauty.
Trophy releases in Toronto on Friday, Sept 22, 2017