The battle lines in the hunting debate are clear — but only to the most vocal partisans on each side of the war.
That's according to a fascinating new documentary that challenges the conventional wisdom about animals. In "Trophy," we watch a confrontation unfold between two people: Texas sheep farmer Philip Glass, an avid recreational hunter (including of big game in Africa), and an anonymous protester at an anti-hunting rally. Glass — a devout Christian who doesn't believe in evolution, and who justifies his lethal pastime by saying that God granted man "dominion" over animals — attempts to rattle the angry protester by noting that she probably eats meat. "I'm a vegan," she shoots back, with a tone of self-righteousness.
That encounter might be the only time in "Trophy" that the opposing sides of the argument are expressed with such ideological purity.
Instead, much of the film is likely to complicate, not clarify, our traditional understanding of the conflict between hunting advocates and animal rights activists. Case in point: In addition to Glass, the film's other main subject is John Hume, a South African rhinoceros rancher who, in an opening sequence, is harvesting a rhino horn, by power saw. (The horns grow back, and the animals have been tranquilized.) His goal? To prevent poachers from killing the animals and selling their horns on the black market.
To some, Hume is a champion of an endangered species. To others, he's an animal profiteer — a "devil," in the words of one animal rights advocate. Hume hopes to finance his rhino ranching operation through the sale of horns, which some believe have magical properties and which can fetch millions of dollars. Because of legal roadblocks, Hume has yet to make a killing, so to speak, even though a South African ban on the sale of horns was recently lifted.
"Trophy's" co-directors, Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau, sat down for an interview recently, accompanied by one of the film's complex subjects: Zimbabwean anti-poaching "cop" Chris Moore. Like the film itself, Moore's work in the Zambezi Valley has complicated roots. His funding comes largely from two sources on opposite sides of the culture wars: a carbon-offset company that works to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases through deforestation, and the big-game hunting industry.
None of these three people, tellingly, is a vegan. Their views on hunting, however, are quite diverse. According to Schwarz, there's something "psychotic" about wanting to kill a majestic beast. Clusiau disagrees with that harsh assessment. As for Moore, a sixth-generation African who grew up practicing falconry as a kid, he's no stranger to killing animals. Although he no longer hunts for sport, he recalls that, in his line of work, he once had to shoot a lioness that had been hunting children on their way to school. It was, he says, to prevent villagers from taking matters into their own hands. If he hadn't taken out that one animal — who was stalking humans only because she had been injured by a poacher's snare and was unable to provide food for her cubs — the village would have killed the entire pride of 14 animals.
"I was torn to pieces," Moore explains, in each of three ways: emotionally; by the disapproval of the animal-loving public; and, very nearly, literally — by the lion.
According to Schwarz, "Trophy" is neither pro- nor anti-hunting. Rather, he says, it's about something larger: "our relationship to animals, and how that is shifting," in directions from which there might be no turning back. The mantra of the hardcore anti-hunting movement — keep the wild wild — is a dangerous position, he argues, because it doesn't allow for people such as Hume — who has probably saved more rhinos than anyone in the world — to operate.
Schwarz offers up a better mantra: If it pays, it stays. In other words, when there are economic incentives to keep animals alive — even if it's for the purpose of killing them, as in the case of farm-raised lions, bred for sport hunting — perhaps even hunters can be called, perversely, conservationists.
"Can I get these 'psychos' to actually conserve?" Schwarz asks, rhetorically. "It sounds crazy, but we learned that it's not so crazy."
Is "Trophy" evidence of a life that is perhaps hopelessly out of balance? An unnatural vision of counterfeit nature, where some animals — now viewed as things — are kept alive, only to be killed? Yes, the filmmakers say, while asking how that's any different from the meat industry.
At a minimum, Schwarz and Clusiau want viewers to reflect on their own hypocrisy: One anti-hunting interview subject is shown, subtly but pointedly, killing a fly.
Although "Trophy" looks at poaching and other aspects of animal commodification, it is, for the most part, an examination of big-game hunting, bringing its gaze to bear unblinkingly — if not always unflinching — on all the sordid details of the hunt. ("It's not sport, it's just killing," author and ecologist Craig Packer says in the film.) During one hunt, an elephant is fatally wounded but not immediately killed. We watch the animal die, slowly, on camera.
"Were our cameras shaking?" Schwarz asks. "Were we crying? Yes. That was one of the hardest scenes we ever filmed."
Other scenes focus on the pornlike tradition of the post-hunt photo shoot, in which "death is washed off an animal's corpse," as Schwarz puts it, before the hunter poses with his kill for what amounts to a morbid selfie.
Will "Trophy" turn a hunter into a vegan? Or a card-carrying, meat-is-murder member of PETA into a modern-day Teddy Roosevelt, with a deer head mounted over the fireplace?
Certainly not, the filmmakers say. And that's not its goal. Unlike news photos of napalmed children that helped hasten the end of the Vietnam War, "Trophy" doesn't mean to shock — or shame — hunters into laying down their weapons. "It's far too late for that, in any case," Clusiau says.
Rather, it raises a question that is uncomfortable but must be asked, according to Schwarz and Clusiau: Can putting a price tag on animals, ironically, help to save them?
"This is why I love this film," Moore says. "It's making people see things from a different perspective."
Trophy (Unrated, 109 minutes). At the AFI Silver Theatre.