'Trophy' Reveals The Convoluted Economics Of African Big Game Hunting

Sep 21, 2017
Originally published on September 22, 2017 12:18 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new documentary "Trophy" stirred a debate at this year's Sundance Film Festival over the complex relationship between big game hunting and wildlife conservation. The co-directors are longtime photojournalists Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The documentary "Trophy" touches on African big game hunting, breeding and conservation, and will leave many viewers angry and confused. The confusion is what makes the film extraordinary. Schwarz is best known for his 2013 documentary "Narco Cultura," which explored the celebration, in some Latin-American quarters, of narcotics traffickers - violent outlaws who nonetheless symbolize a path out of poverty. In the same way, it's not so much the morality of hunting and breeding that engages Schwarz. It's the convoluted economics.

Consider the scene in a Zimbabwe rhinoceros ranch owned by John Hume, a man in his early 70s. A woman shoots a rhino - a ghastly sight. But then we see it's a tranquilizer gun, which isn't so bad. But then Hume and his men saw off the rhino's horn - horrible. But then Hume asserts, he saved that rhino's life because the omnipresent poachers won't kill a hornless rhino. The animal feels no pain, he says. The horn will grow back, whereas poachers slaughter rhinos outright. There's a scene that shows the poachers' handiwork you'll want to look away from.

If you're an animal lover who thinks traffic in rhino horns - erroneously thought to have medicinal properties - is obscene, this is counterintuitive. But Schwarz and co-director Christina Clusiau give Hume's words weight. An animal doesn't go extinct, Hume maintains, when farmers can breed and make money off it. At the time Schwarz was filming, Hume had 1,300-plus rhinos out of a world population of 30,000. But because South Africa had outlawed the export of rhino horns, he's stockpiling them and losing millions, some of which he'd use, he says, protecting rhinos from poachers.

It's also a fact that huge sums for conservation come from fees paid by rich foreign hunters. Justification for big game hunting is problematic, given what "Trophy" shows of the culture. Schwarz scrutinizes the hunters dispassionately, as one might, say, a group of animals at a watering hole - in this case, Las Vegas, where they gather to explore their prospects for killing and stuffing exotic creatures.

One half admires a hunter named Philip Glass - not the composer - for allowing himself to be filmed shooting animals and teaching his young son to do the same, which can't be said for Minneapolis-area dentist Walter Palmer, who went into hiding after luring Zimbabwe's beloved black-maned lion Cecil from a reservation and shooting him. But Glass is tough to admire fully.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "TROPHY")

PHILIP GLASS: When I was a little boy, I remember I had a BB gun. I can vividly remember my mother telling me, you can go shoot birds, but don't shoot a red bird. What'd I do? I went and shot a red bird. And I can still remember holding that bird in my hands, and looking at its beak, and just seeing how beautiful it was and how it was made. Right there, in that moment, I realized that there is no way I could've loved that bird any more, even though it was dead. And I think a lot us, as trophy hunters, feel the same way. We just want that experience to go and hunt that animal one time. We'd really just want one.

EDELSTEIN: I don't agree that, as Glass says later, God gave humans dominion over animals, and no government bureaucrat should take that away. But I was willing to listen to his arguments until the scene in which he's led by expensive guides to where elephants gather and shoots a young one, which takes a long time to die, whimpering. I pass the time remembering a cartoon I once saw of a tiger in an easy chair reading a newspaper under mounted human heads.

"Trophy" continues to stir ambivalence, though. We watch as police break into a shack in the middle of the night and terrify a family as they hunt the father, who'd mutilated the rhinos we saw. After the arrest, an affable redheaded ranger named Chris Moore muses that sometimes he's saving animals from these impoverished poachers so that they can be hunted by rich men. Everyone in "Trophy" has his or her own set of values, and every value is in conflict. The movie is richer in all ways for its tangled sympathies.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEVEN TURRE'S "EXPLORATION")

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(SOUNDBITE OF STEVEN TURRE'S "EXPLORATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.