Trophy is not an easy film to watch.
Nor is it a film that will make people on either side of the moral line regarding trophy hunting completely happy. And that’s a good thing. What could have been a one-sided collection of evidence unquestionably demonstrating the ills of the trophy hunting industry is something much more compelling, much more troubling, and much more morally ambiguous than could have expected. (And, for all I know, the filmmakers expected.)
It’s very easy and completely understandable to see pictures of hunters posing with lions, elephants, crocodiles, etc., and be outraged. (Remember the outrage caused by the killing of Cecil the Lion? Well, that whole fiasco pops up in the film.) Many trophy hunters’ targets are on endangered species lists, after all. To someone unfamiliar with the trade it looks like folks with no regard for wildlife or delicate ecosystems flagrantly taunting Mother Nature.
The brilliance of Trophy is that it recognizes this, and the many long, lingering shots of the aftermath of the hunt — a young elephant lying solitary in a seemingly endless plain; men covering the blood on a lion’s fur to conceal it for the photograph — suggest a degree of empathy on the part of directors Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz. And while recognizing the bloodshed incurred and whatever feeling of grief, rage, sadness, or disgust it may elicit from the viewer (depending on the viewer’s stance on hunting in general, and trophy hunting of exotic animals in particular), it invites a dialectical conversation between two (well, more actually) sides that have more in common than they might think. Hunting and conversation are closely intertwined, and trying to unravel that tangled ball of yarn is the backbone (narratively and thematically) of Trophy.
Trophy follows several hunters, conservationists, and owners of trophy hunting companies. One American hunter, Philip Glass (no, not that one), is after the Big Five, which is to say hunting the five most desired animals in the trophy hunting community: lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo, rhino (African variety, all).
There’s also John Hume (again, not that one), a rhino farmer in South Africa fighting to make trading rhino horns legal again. Statistics show that rhino poaching went up dramatically year-by-year after the ban was implemented. Hume’s theory is that if it can be harvested, bought and sold legally that poachers would have no more incentive to hunt.
There are more figures, but to list them all would take all day. Just take it from me that there are perspectives from a couple of big game breeders who raise animals specifically for the hunt as well as an anti-big game hunting activist.
One of the most compelling stories comes from a man who formed an anti-poaching police force of sorts. They use, shall we say, morally gray tactics on occasion to weed out poachers. (A harrowing scene involving threats of death comes to mind.)
One of the most admirable things about the film is the way in which it explores the deep love of animals that possess hunters and conservationists alike. Even when it’s lingering in the bloodshed, the filmmakers portray all their subjects nonjudgmentally. Philip Glass, for example, waxes poetic about the well of emotions after the kill, for example. Tears are shed by many.
With so many perspectives, lesser directors could easily muddle everything up and present nothing more than major information overload. But Clusiau and Shaul present to us a masterclass on juggling multiple plot threads and conflicting arguments.
But I’m not going to lay out all the film’s arguments here. That would be a disservice. Rather, I’ll give my wholehearted recommendation.
Knowing only the synopsis before I saw it, I expected pleasant confirmation of my bias: that trophy hunting is probably Not Good. When the credits rolled, I found myself in a bit of a moral dilemma. Not being a hunter myself, I generally oppose killing for sport (much to the confusion and light derision of certain family members). But Trophy so intricately so succinctly presents a variety of arguments from ethical, economic, and environmental points of view that it managed to shake the foundation of my morals regarding the subject. I was left with questions about many issues to which I, like the film, have no answers.
Opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, September 8.