Trophy takes what is a cut-and-dry topic for many and deconstructs its moral ambiguities.
The death of Cecil the Lion in 2015 cast the world’s eyes to a decades-old problem: big game hunting. Since President Teddy Roosevelt documented his exploits tracking and killing big cats, this has been a part of the social consciousness. It, however, is only in recent years—with a swath of attempts to prevent poaching—that the hunting industry has changed. Directors Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau attempt to explain the reasons for this change in their frustratingly necessary documentary Trophy. Looking at the nature of big game hunting from all sides, from those trying to protect and those trying to kill, Trophy should be mandatory viewing in spite of its narrative presentation.
Instead of traversing the typical documentary trail by coming down on the “pro” or “con” side of a particular issue, Trophy is subtler. The on-screen text showing the rapid increase in rhino hunting or the decrease in the elephant population are there to explain that trophy hunting is ecologically negative, but the overall tone is surprisingly neutral. The film focuses more on the industries fostering or trying to prevent hunting in general, as opposed to the hunters themselves, which in presenting the story in a neutral way. The neutrality leaves the film feeling narratively haphazard, with a lot of information thrown out rapidly, from the brief definition of what “own/use” is in the world of hunting—the concept of harvesting an animal for meat to dispense to a native population—to the sudden plot turn towards rhino conservationist John Hume’s attempt to lift the rhino horn moratorium in South Africa.
With so much going on, it’s remarkable that the animals never take second position. Trophy, by its very subject, is a documentary that tests your mettle. A deer hunt at the opening is only the start of a near two-hour film where majestic creatures are stalked and shot. By the 30 minute mark, depending on your tolerance, the crack of a gunshot is enough to turn your blood cold. A scene of an elephant breathing its last breaths is particularly excruciating to watch, especially considering the hunter who shot it does so twice and then stands around waiting for it to die because “it’s too small” to be a trophy kill. The only irony is that this same hunting enthusiast talks about how much he loves animals, later sobbing over a lion he’s shot.
Trophy is about the industry, but the few hunters who are brave enough to put themselves in this are there to remind audiences of why the big-game hunting industry thrives to this day. Philip Glass, a Texas sheep breeder, is the face of the hunting industry. He spends thousands of dollars a year to travel to exotic locales, desperate to nab “the big five.” For him, hunting is a father-son bonding activity and he opines over the love he feels for the animals he’s shot. Yet as he walks the streets of Las Vegas and sees anti-hunting activists he can’t help but “explain” all the good hunting does in terms of donations, only to have no proper response when someone asks him why his charitable contribution doesn’t just go to charities directly. There are also the typical stereotypes of hunters presented, those who wear their camo and drink beer as they shoot an alligator, loudly screaming “Yeah, motherfucker” before taking a selfie with their kill.
But the directors go deeper in to the ambiguities than just asking why someone would spend thousands to shoot something and take a picture with it. The film dives into why hunting, particularly in South Africa, is both a blessing and a curse. John Hume is the talking head entering the grayest waters. He raises rhinos to breed them in the hopes of replenishing their numbers while simultaneously shearing them of their horns every two years to sell for profit. He explains the profit keeps the rhinos in comfort and prevents poaching because, if poachers have their prize, the horn, what’s the point? This does nothing to hold back big game hunters who just enjoy the thrill of the kill – the beer-swilling American above probably wouldn’t turn down hunting regardless.
Hume’s “pay to stay” mentality has its fair share of detractors and other voices discuss that the conservation principle via hunting is a fantasy. And yet it’s hard to say they’re right. A South African wildlife officer details how South African natives are killed yearly by elephants, buffaloes and lions, yet aren’t allowed to kill anything unless someone sees an attack. Is conservation coming at the risk of people’s lives? Much of the runtime is spent exploring how hunting affects the South African economy, another avenue where the nature of hunting is presented in a morally ambiguous way. For many, hunting provides tourism dollars and is funneled back towards helping an already shaky economy, but it often comes at the expense of wildlife officers acting like gangsters, roughing up people illegally hunting.
Trophy takes what is a cut-and-dry topic for many and deconstructs its moral ambiguities. There isn’t a right answer for how to stop trophy hunting. There isn’t even a proper line to demarcate which animals are worth saving and which aren’t. Trophy leaves you to ask these questions and find your own line in the sand.