Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau’s Trophy should find an audience among people with a sensitivity to animal suffering, but there’s a decent chance it won’t. Their documentary, an intimate, breathtaking examination of the overlap between conservation efforts and the big game hunting industry from Namibia to South Africa, is too unflinching and honest, too willing to put that suffering at its forefront as a necessary gesture for driving home its points about the unexpected ways its two focal points intersect.
Schwarz and Clusiau bounce back and forth from hunters, to safari agents, to conservationists, to ecologists, letting each tell their story of Africa’s relationship to animals, and to the art of the hunt. The film ultimately ties its threads into one innately messy but startlingly cohesive tangle, making the case not for any one of its arguments (whether in favor of hunting or conservation or both), but for nuance in a conversation that tends to trigger most of us. If the thought of seeing rhinos doped up on tranquilizer darts having their horns sawed off is upsetting, or if the idea of animals living out their days in cages, waiting for hunters to select them as prey, gives you nightmares, then you’re the type of person for which Trophy was made, but you’re also the type of person who will find the film unendurable.
Schwarz, director of the great Narco Cultura, is a master documentarian, a filmmaker who layers the form’s academic pursuits with top notch craftsmanship. His work is consistently well-made, and oftentimes beautiful, as in Trophy, where the ugliness of his and Clusiau’s subjects are offset by frequent gorgeous overhead shots of African landscapes. That’s a perfect metaphor for nature, of course: a blend of the sublime, awesome power of the wild and the brutish, violent mechanics of survival, of life itself.
That little lump of sugar doesn’t make the grimmer elements of Trophy go down any easier, of course, but take comfort in the fact that Schwarz, at least, isn’t out merely to provoke viewers. (Exception: Viewers who were more outraged by the death of Cecil the lion than by, say, the death of Michael Brown.) Rather, he’s out to educate. To accomplish that goal, he’s done an enormous amount of research, and invested astronomicals amount of time, in tying together the threads of paradoxy that bind hunters to conservationists, ecologists to breeders, in the unifying web of life. It’s the only way to paint an equitable picture of the ethical and financial logistics of killing for sport, for profit, and also for the good of preservation. The discourse is riddled with contradictions, but Schwarz’s movie is free of such internalized drama. It’s a calculated and logical film about an altogether illogical subject.
Consider John Hume, a breeder whose team we meet at the film’s start. Immediately we peg him as one of the villains of the piece: The operation his team performs on the prone rhino, shot up close and without a trace of hesitation, is grisly, unpleasant to observe, and we assume by the time they’re done that the worst is yet to come. But as soon as the group gets the rhino’s horns, they walk away, and Hume speaks to Schwarz in frank, no-nonsense terms about the end result of the seemingly barbaric act. It’s not the first conclusion any of us would make, but it turns out that by harvesting the horn without killing the rhino, they’re protecting the rhino from poachers, who don’t care about sparing the animal. If there’s no horn to collect, though, there’s no reason to kill the animal.
Hume tells us the process of removing the horn isn’t unlike getting one’s wisdom teeth pulled. Is that worth the pain and ignominy inflicted upon the animal itself, though? Is it moral to force an animal to tolerate routine mutilation to ward off would-be killers? Maybe not, but it’s kinder by far than the alternative. We see Hume, on several occasions, standing in anguish over butchered rhinos carcasses, cursing the sick bastards who left them there. We see him, too, chewing out one of his colleagues over government legislation prohibiting the sale of rhino horns, the root cause behind massive spikes in illegal poaching. “If you are anti-legal trade, by implication to me, you are pro-illegal trade, and those are the poachers.” “The fact of the matter is that…,” his colleague sputters back, desperate to save his ass from Hume’s fire. Hume ain’t having it. “The fact of the matter is,” he spits, “in ten years time, if there’s not legalization, you won’t see one fucking rhino here. They’ll all be dead or gone. That’s the fact of the matter.”
Schwarz includes more names and faces in Trophy than Hume’s alone (though among them, Hume cuts the most magnetic, compelling, complicated figure). There’s Philip Glass, an American rancher on a quest to take down the Big Five, an achievement earned by sniping a buffalo, a lion, a rhino, a leopard and an elephant. There’s Chris Moore, a wildlife officer and anti-poacher who carries out midnight raids on the homes of suspected poachers with as much determination and duty as reluctance. Or take Christo Gomes, a hunting outfitter employed by Mabula Pro Safaris. Still, the film and Schwarz both appear to identify most with Hume, who best embodies what Moore characterizes as the emotional component of killing an animal. It might be that Hume also happens to embody Trophy’s endless conflicting dynamics. Arguing for the repeal of anti-poaching laws, at a glance, feels counterproductive to the causes of conservation and preservation, until, that is, you hear what Hume has to say.
Which is true for all of Trophy, though even Schwarz, as gifted and even-handed a filmmaker as he is, won’t persuade everybody of the canned hunting industry’s merits (mostly because those merits are shown as dubious). Perhaps persuasion isn’t the point. Perhaps the point is merely to report. Even if the film fails to change your mind, it will enhance your understanding of hunting’s place in the world and its history as a sport that, in the context of the business circa 2017, feels less than sporting.
Directors: Shaul Schwarz, Christina Clusiau
Release Date: September 8, 2017
Boston-based pop culture critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.