Big game hunting may seem niche, but it’s an industry worth tens of billions of dollars, and it is rife with moral questions. Hunters argue that the revenue they produce helps to conserve habitats, and local anti-poaching officials add that the money the hunters spend helps to keep poachers from killing the same animals in larger numbers. From co-director Christina Clusiau, Trophy is an empathetic view into the many complex sides of this issue. The slaughtering itself can be hard to watch, and maybe a little gratuitous. Still, with cinematography by Clusiau and an original score by Erick Lee and Jeremy Turner, the film is engaging, informative, and visually striking. (AEL: 4/5)
Review by FF2 Intern Amelie E. Lasker
In the opening moments of Trophy (co-directed by cinematographer Christina Clusiau in collaboration with filmmaker Shaul Schwarz), Texas rancher Philip Glass shows his son how to shoot a wild deer. After the boy makes his kill, he poses proudly for a picture, brandishing the animal’s antlers.
Wealthy people can also pay to go on hunts, and then they can save their kills as trophies (carefully preserved by taxidermists). They can meet up at conventions in places like Las Vegas, where they can bid in the millions of dollars for the right to hunt and kill the specific animals who are on display in catalogs.
On the one hand, the filmmakers are making what seems like an obvious moral point: killing animals for personal pride and satisfaction is wrong. A woman shouts at a protest rally that she is a vegan because she cares for all living things, as if that’s the end of the argument. But what else is working under this massive industry, which monetizes animals that might otherwise go extinct?
In the style of a Louis Theroux documentary, Trophy’s filmmakers give us extensive insight into the hunters’ reasoning for doing things some of us might think cruel and even disgusting. A taxidermist talks about the respect with which hunters treat their animals, preserving their beauty rather than destroying them as poachers do. Philip Glass tells the story of killing a bird and appreciating it just as much, even when it is dead. He argues, moreover, that the money hunters spend on their expeditions helps with land conservation.
John Hume’s rhino ranch presents another complex moral debate. Hume breeds rhino and cuts off their tusks, using a method that looks violent but is actually harmless. Most important to Hume, cutting the tusks saves the animals’ lives because it makes them worthless to poachers. Through this work, Hume is protecting rhinos from extinction, maybe even single-handedly. He needs to sell the ivory in order to support his operation, however, and this is where wildlife protection organizations are fighting him.
It is this debate that embodies for me what is particularly fascinating and successful in this film. The practice of big game hunting, and the debates surrounding it, bring out people’s deep and disparate understandings of what it means to be human. Should we let animal populations go extinct if that’s their natural course, or do we have a responsibility to protect the Earth’s biodiversity, since we’re the ones ultimately responsible for their extinction? What does it mean when a hunter expresses his appreciation for an animal’s beauty by killing it?
I did find it strange that the film gives relatively little attention to the human suffering created by the hunting industry and the changes within it. The film seems to criticize people who protest hunting on the basis of morality without acknowledging the complexity of the issue, but the film itself fails to acknowledge the complexity of the local people’s part in it. The wealthy hunters’ perspective is heavily represented, but the perspective of the poachers is almost completely absent. As a result, the poachers seem to be framed as the villains, a senseless force of destruction. As anti-poaching officers argue, poachers are desperate for money, while hunters have a kind of respect for the animals.
For me, the film’s multifaceted view of the hunting issue would benefit from insight into the POV of the poachers. What in their local environment and economy might be making it difficult enough for them to survive that they have to turn to poaching? Could it have something to do with the hunting industry happening all around them?
Although the film does have a fair amount of difficult bloody killing, it manages to be thought-provoking without simply relying on violence porn.
© Amelie E. Lasker (9/12/17) FF2 Media
Top Photo: Philip Glass examines the lion he’s just shot.
Middle Photo: John Hume on his rhino farm.
Bottom Photo: A pair of hunters pose for photos with their kill.
Photo Credits: The Orchard
Q: Does Trophy pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?