For all the insight they can bring, watching documentaries can be pretty bad for your health. If the urgent messages posed by many were all to be treated equally it would be hard to get out of bed in the morning. This year alone we've had an exposé on mass sporting corruption, a strong reminder about the dangers of global warming and a call to arms to protect the building blocks of the ocean floor, to name but a few. Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz’s documentary, Trophy, is another to add to that list, although it presents a much more complicated picture about big-game hunting than you might first imagine.
Making an even handed film about animal trophy hunters is a tough ask in a climate where the hatred shown towards them is at an all-time high. It's a divisive subject, much like many others around the world at the moment, and the two directors do an admirable job in taking a non-judgemental stance about such a sensitive topic. What started out as a clear cut anti-hunting documentary unearthed a complex eco-system far removed from the black and white arguments made by pro and anti-hunters living outside of the African continent.
Conservationists, hunters, breeders, taxidermists, ecologists and safari operators all get the chance to put forward their opinions, Clusiau and Shwarz referring to each one along the way. Some of the discussion points may not be enough to sway some people from their entrenched position but the film reveals a tangled mess that offers no easy answers. Trophy comes out the gate in hard hitting style, showing a father and his young son peering through the slot of a purpose-built tower, the boy journeying along his rites of passage firing a rifle that takes down an isolated deer, before posing hunter-style over the dead body.
Immediately we cut to another group chasing a herd of rhinos across the dusky plain, watching angrily as they shoot a tranquilliser into the animal before stopping to saw off its horn. We are told: "It’s about as painful as a human having a wisdom tooth taken out.” These are the words of controversial rhino breeder John Hume, a man who has passionately bred thousands of rhinos on his private land. He claims that sawing the horn off (which regrows in two years) is the only effective way to protect the animal from the threat of ruthless poachers. A government ban prevents the sale of the horn but since it was imposed the rise in illegal poaching has rocketed, something which Hume believes will only lower if the moratorium was lifted.
His team perform a brutal and uncomfortable act to watch but the alternative seems far crueller. We see Hume a number of times in the film, often visibly upset as he drives out to view the carcass of yet another rhino butchered by poachers. We also meet Phillip Glass, an American hunter who has paid a considerable amount of money to hunt the Big Five; a lion, rhino, elephant, buffalo and leopard. Wildlife officer Chris Moore gets involved in tracking down poachers, but also has a responsibility to the local community whose crops, cattle and livelihoods are destroyed by roaming animals, which requires him to kill on behalf of the council. Locals rely heavily on the tourist trade but their own lives can be at risk, and the lack of understanding about this dynamic stands in stark contrast to the value systems held by animal welfare groups.
No side is taken throughout and it is left to us to mull over the details of what we’ve been shown to either challenge or reaffirm our existing ideals. For the animals involved there is nothing fair or humane about hunting allowed in the region. Watching them butchered onscreen is simply heartbreaking. But even laws cannot protect them from poachers and local communities need to survive against the threat of wild animals destroying their way of life. Trophy is an intelligently made documentary that will enrage and challenge its viewers, reminding us again that there is very rarely an easy solution to the most complicated questions.