Director: Shaul Schwarz, Co-director: Christina Clusaiu
Cast: Philip Glass, John Hume, Michelle Otto, Christo Gomes, Joe Hosmer, Adam Roberts, Craig Packer, Tim Fallon, Richard Hume
Opens: September 8, 2017
There are lots of animals in Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, according to Shaul Schwarz, who directed “Trophy” after having made “Aida’s Secrets,” about two brothers born in a displaced persons camp in Bergen-Belsen who are not aware of each other’s existence for seventy years. His résumé is filled with quite a few documentaries before that. The first thing that comes to mind when you watch the closing credits of his latest movie, co-directed by Christina Clusaiu, is: where is the Humane Society notice that “no animals were harmed during the making of this film?” Ah, that’s because quite a few animals were harmed, though they might have been treated like, uh, animals even if the directors’ cameras were not on them. And that, in turn, is because this is a film about hunting big game, and investigates quite a few complex debate topics, not the least being that people who kill these African rhinos, lions, deer and elephants are helping them. They’re conservationists, like our own Teddy Roosevelt, a big game hunter who is known particularly as a conservationist. He signed into law the creation of five national parks, serving to protect the animals residing therein, though in “Trophy,” he gets little mention aside from some neat black-and-white archival films. Talk about ironies, paradoxes, and conundrums!
Filmed in the aforementioned African states, “Trophy” features a group of talking heads, mostly men with accents that should have required subtitles throughout instead of those that appear when they’re speaking Afrikaans of, in some cases (I think), English. They have assorted opinions just like people in our own red states and blue states, some favoring protection of animals, especially rhinos, which means they favor conservation, while others favor killing animals and consider themselves conservationists as well.
The movie opens with a father-son bonding, where Philip Glass takes his son not to Broadway’s “The Lion King” but instead to showing the lad a gun and helping him to shoot a doe, because that’s a brave, macho thing to do. After that, we listen to a John Hume over in South Africa who has dedicated fifty million dollars of his own fortune, garnered from his resorts, to protecting rhinos. When we see him and in his indigenous helpers bending over an awfully still animal, we’re sure he killed the beast, but he actually sedated him, and sawed off his horns. By doing so, he is preventing poachers from killing rhinos in the wild, as the bad guys would saw off the horns and make fortunes. The horns are sold in Yemen, for example, to make that country’s traditional jambias, or curved knives, and in China, where they are said to enhance virility. (China’s abundant population proves that the horns work.)
Now, that guy who bonded with his son over the killing of a doe, Philip Glass, like his American composer namesake, strikes a discordant note or two, seeking to hunt the Big Five, to wit: lion, buffalo, leopard, elephant, and rhino. The expression Big Five may have come from the annual meetings in Las Vegas of the Safari Club International, where rich people book hunting trips, in some cases with guaranteed kills. Members can actually book specific animals, and for $50,000 and up they are assured success. They can also buy guns, which I don’t think are used in photograph safaris.
Here’s another contradiction, or paradox, if you will. Some of the local Africans want their animals protected, but at the same time they want them killed, a neat trick. They have good reason for the latter wish: lions eat the cattle of the indigenous people, one family having to put their cows in their home—though the lions are a step ahead of them, as the king of beasts will destroy the homes to get at the cattle.
Here are two particularly stupid remarks. One of the women at the Las Vegas convention states that it’s OK to kill crocodiles because they’re mean (the crocs, not the women). Then Philip Glass, he’s back again, states that evolution is a hoax given the beauty of animals, and that he has the Bible-given right to shoot the beasts. Apparently he does not agree with Matthew Scully’s book “Dominion.” Scully interprets Genesis 1:28 “fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” not as a call to mass murder but rather a responsibility: that people exist to both rule over and to protect other species.
What we have in this doc are viewpoints that on the one hand condemns poachers, most of whom do their killing to make a living, while at the same time refusing to condemn hunters outright—because the money they spend on safaris goes back to conservation, to safeguarding the beasts while (this is confusing to me) even killing animals prevents illegal slaughters by poachers.
If you’re not going to Africa whether to photograph animals or kill them, this movie is not exactly the next best thing. There are Disney and National Geographic films that do terrific work in showing African denizens close up in gorgeous color, suitable for IMAX. The Africa photography is fine enough, but more important, “Trophy” does attempt with some success to stimulate the audience to consider the paradox, including (as just stated) that killing animals conserves them. This is not for the small fry, and in fact the graphic kills could scare adults as well, though in one case, when a recent elephant kill is being chopped up for meat, the camera pulls away from the fallen to focus on the raised axes. And did I mention that English subtitles should be used throughout instead of occasionally?
Unrated. 108 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers? Agree? Disagree? Why?
Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+