A woman kneels down, sets a black rhino in her sights, and pulls the trigger on the majestic animal, sending it careening to the ground. Immediately a crew rushes to the animal, straps its enormous jaw closed, and takes an electric saw to its horn. Cut to a portly older gentleman explaining in heavily accented South African English that for the rhino, the procedure is akin to having its wisdom teeth pulled. It’s for their own good, he explains: Poachers won’t kill a hornless rhino.
There are two sides to every story in “Trophy,” a sweeping new documentary from Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau. Capturing footage as unbelievable as the disturbing underworld of big-game hunting it seeks to understand, “Trophy” tells a story as captivating as its images are beautiful.
The portly gentleman is John Hume, a rhino breeder whose life’s mission is to save the rhino from extinction, and the closest thing that the movie (and the rhino) has to a hero. Since South Africa implemented a ban on selling rhino horn, poaching of the endangered species has skyrocketed. Highly valued for dubious medicinal properties, rhino horn is “more expensive than gold or heroin by weight,” says Hume. Because of the ban, Hume can’t sell any of the rhino horn he keeps locked away in storage, which he estimates is worth at least $16 million. During the film, he petitions the government to lift the ban so he can use the money to continue protecting his rhinos.
In stark contrast to Hume (though just as famously named) is Philip Glass, a Texan sheep farmer and lifelong hunter. Through Glass, the film explores the multi-million dollar world of big-game hunting, and seeks to understand what drives a person to spend thousands on killing an endangered species. Glass travels to South Africa and Zimbabwe on his quest to hunt the “Big Five,” a trophy hunter’s dream: buffalo, lion, leopard, elephant, and rhino. We see Glass tear up about his childhood hunting days, and insist that he honors the animal’s spirit by shooting it dead: It is a testament to the filmmakers that he felt comfortable enough to be so vulnerable on camera.
Inside the Safari Club Convention in Las Vegas, people are less eloquent about their hobby. At massive auctions, hunters bid for their kills, and are even able to choose the exact animal. One woman jokes that hunting lost her favor in the eyes of her granddaughter. “Crocodiles are mean, so I don’t feel bad about killing them,” she jokes. “Plus, I want a purse. And a belt. And shoes.”
While Schwarz and Clusiau clearly take a stance, one reason “Trophy” works is it’s willing to explore the uncomfortable grey areas like Chris Moore, a wildlife officer and anti-poacher based in Zimbabwe. His story intersects with the local people whose crops are trampled by elephants, and whose cattle are eaten by lions. If a person loses their livelihood, Moore explains, they turn to poaching to make a living. On occasion, Moore has had to shoot an animal who is causing problems. Having had the experience, he says, he can’t imagine why anyone would choose to do it, much less pay for it.
While the subjects are compelling, the wildlife scenes are the film’s crowning achievement. But beware: This is not your mother’s nature documentary. Never before have you seen a 20-foot crocodile writhing to break free of a lasso around its neck, its twisting tail sending wheelbarrows flying. Or the look on a child’s face as he collects entrails from the carcass of an elephant his father has just hacked to bits with an axe. Or heard the mournful bleats of a baby rhino as he runs erratic circles around the body of his dead mother.
“Trophy” unearths layers of an issue much more complex than even the filmmakers initially believed. In countries with no hunting regulation, animals have not fared well. For rare species, regulation brings commodification — and with that, profits (some argue) that go directly into conservation. Breeding animals to kill them for sport keeps enough alive so they don’t become extinct. In this film, “It’s the cycle of life,” is repeated so often that it loses all meaning.
Through the lens of big-game hunting, “Trophy” tells a story of man versus beast, which is really the story of humankind. “Surely we want our world to survive. Surely we want our world to be a better place,” says Hume, surveying the rhinos he calls his “darlings.” But his urgent, pleading tone tells a far different tale.
“Trophy” premiered in Documentary Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It will be distrubted by The Orchard and CNN films.