Director: Shaul Schwarz
Running Time: 1:48
Release Date: 9/8/17 (limited); 9/22/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 21, 2017
A hunter explains the emotional process of the hunt. There's the anticipation—looking for an animal, finding it, getting as close to it as possible without scaring it away or, in case of a large or predatory animal, putting oneself in danger. The release, after taking the shot and seeing the animal fall, is something else that's more difficult to put into words.
The detailed explanation of the anticipation is restated later in Trophy, although, this time, it comes from someone whose job to protect the wildlife of a national park in Africa. At times, he has to kill one of those animals, because it might be interfering with the local population or people need food. There's a process to this—an agreement based on local custom and necessity. The park official understands it, and so, when he must, he will kill an animal.
The official begins talking about an elephant that he recently had to kill. His description of the anticipation—of looking for the elephant, finding it, and walking up close to the large beast, which easily could trample him if it became frightened—is almost identical to the description provided by the hunter. If the hunter feels what he felt, then the park official can understand the appeal of hunting. He says this, but unlike the hunter, he describes his emotional state after killing the elephant: sadness, regret, and guilt.
The hunter—at least the ones we meet here—does not have that response to killing an animal. There's something else there. From what we can gather, it's a combination of pride, joy, and fulfillment. The hunters we meet here have a goal: They want to kill as many wild and exotic animals as they can. There's a group known as the "Big Five"—all from Africa and namely a buffalo, an elephant, a leopard, a lion, and a rhinoceros. The collection is inspired, in part, by a hunting culture that was popularized by Theodore Roosevelt, whose expeditions to Africa became the stuff of legend. There was something romantic about those tales of visiting a foreign land, taking days or even weeks of tracking a specific beast, and having it stuffed as a trophy of how tough and resilient you were.
From what we see in the film, that kind of hunting is dead. There's nothing romantic or noble about hunting African big game in the modern world. It has become a commercial enterprise, with a giant convention every year in Las Vegas, where companies sell their gear and foreign game farms auction off animals. People will pay tens or hundreds of thousands—even millions—of dollars to go to these farms and shoot the animal they purchased.
Director Shaul Schwarz (with co-director Christina Clusiau) goes to these farms and watches the modern version of the big-game "hunt." In one case, a hunter approaches a crocodile that has been dragged from a manmade pond and tied up with ropes so it can't escape. He walks up to the croc and shoots it in the head.
This isn't hunting. It's shooting.
This isn't sport. It's killing.
There's something rather demented about this, especially since the animals have been bred to be killed and, as far as we can tell, the only things their bodies end up serving as are stuffed trophies. In some cases, the meat goes to the locals, because that's part of the agreement the farms have made to justify their existence. One hunter kills an elephant, but, he has a selected a younger bull, meaning that a local village won't have as much food as they need, unless someone else pays to kill another, larger elephant. If another ignorant hunter is responsible for the next kill, who knows if the people will have enough food.
In a way, the film flies in the face of the outrage and protests that have erupted when a foreigner kills a certain animal in Africa. It seems simple: That lion was an innocent animal, and some arrogant American paid a lot of money to kill it. Here, lions, which hadn't been natural to South Africa for decades until the farms and wildlife parks recently became a part of the country, kill the local livestock. One family has placed its last cow in their own home. It's only a matter of time before that lion figures it out, and from there, it's only a matter of time before a human being is killed.
It's far more complicated than not killing animals because all animals are special. There's a line that even the people living with and among the natural world of Africa haven't been able to determine. How can those specific wildlife and park officials ensure the survival of both animals and humans? They haven't figured it out, but for some reason, the farms think they have an answer. The foreign hunters think they're entitled to kill these animals—one man, whose rationale for killing sounds like something a serial killer might say, quotes the Bible as his reason—and, encouraged by a hunting culture that has become an industry, feed into the big business that game farming has become.
There aren't any heroes in the film: not the hunters, not the farmers (One of whom, with tears in his eyes, asks for the camera to be shut off when asked if he regrets any of his animals being killed), and not the park officials (They go after poachers—another complication that has, inadvertently, become more prevalent with a ban on the selling of certain animals parts—with a level of aggression that even they admit is too much). The closest we have is John Hume, who runs a rhino farm that is a sanctuary for the animals. He has found a way to gather the animals' horns without killing them. As a reward, he cannot legally sell the horns, meaning his farm could go bankrupt.
The world explored by Trophy is messy and without simple solutions. In the process of examining it, Schwarz also has made a sympathetic look at those who want to help our world and a damning study of human arrogance, which would claim dominion over the natural world with little comprehension of the consequences.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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