The 2015 killing of “Cecil the lion” by Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer sparked domestic outrage over the practice of big-game hunting, yet it functions as only a minor piece of the much larger puzzle assembled by “Trophy,” a complex nonfiction portrait of wildlife hunting and conservation that’s more interested in posing challenging questions than proffering easy answers. Director Shaul Schwarz (“Narco Cultura”) and co-director Christina Clusiau tackle this hot-button topic from numerous angles to craft a multifaceted look at the intersection of big business and animal-rights protection. While its more graphic sequences may scare some viewers away, its ability to enrage, enlighten and confound in equal measure make it a non-fiction prize of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
“Trophy” opens with American recreational hunter Philip Glass overseeing his son’s maiden shooting of a doe — a bracing sequence that immediately segues into the even more disturbing sight of South African John Hume supervising a team of workers as they sedate a rhinoceros and saw off its tusk. While those initially appear to be kindred introductory scenes, they’re soon revealed to represent different sides of a thorny issue. That’s because Hume, far from a thrill-seeking killer, is a man who’s dedicated his life (and, he claims, upwards of $50 million of his own resort fortune) to running a rhino farm where he breeds the beasts as well as protects them from hunters by harvesting and selling their valuable horns.
Complicating things further, Hume is a dogged conservationist who wants rhino hunting legalized in his native South Africa, because he believes such a measure will halt the illegal poaching that has thinned the species’ herds to extinction-grade levels (less than 30,000 left in the world, and dropping). He’s not the only one who suggests a similar strategy throughout “Trophy.” From a Zimbabwe anti-poacher to Philip himself, who soon embarks on a years-long quest to successfully hunt Africa’s “Big Five” (i.e. elephant, lion, cape buffalo, leopard, and rhino), many voice varying degrees of an “If it pays, it stays” ethos which contends that endangered animals can best be protected by allowing and managing legal hunters to kill them, versus the unregulated poachers who care solely about butchery for immediate financial gain.
The intertwined relationship between capitalistic profiteering (embodied by a gaming industry that hosts Las Vegas conventions with more than 20,000 annual attendees) and animal conservationism is presented by “Trophy” as a hopelessly messy one. And it’s further confused by other factors, like the African villagers who simultaneously want their local wildlife protected, and dispatched with, lest predatory lions eat their cattle and destroy their homes. Even the men and women involved are emotionally torn between elation, resignation, entitlement, callousness and empathy, with avowed creationist Philip proclaiming that it’s his biblical “privilege” to hunt (since God gave man dominion over animals), and South African cattleman-turned-safari bigwig Christo Gomes getting teary-eyed discussing the deep emotional bond he shares with the creatures he cultivates for others’ sport.
Directors Schwarz and Clusiau move between their various points of interest with aplomb, in the process raising difficult questions about the virtuousness of a booming pastime that seems driven by greed, arrogance, and cruelty on the one hand, and yet has also led to the revitalization of regions (and species) that would otherwise be in ruins were it not for the revenue generated by aficionados such as Philip. The irony of this situation — that killing animals, often for personal enjoyment, produces financial earnings that help safeguard them, all while staving off worse illegal slaughters — isn’t lost on “Trophy” or its speakers, whose alternately reasonable and horrifying opinions hammer home the twisted, and in some respects irreconcilable, dynamics at play.
Offering up stark images of animals being shot and carved up, intimate moments of heated debate and private contemplation, and gorgeous up-close-and-personal panoramas of rhinos, lions, elk, and giraffes roaming their natural habitats, “Trophy’s” wealth of conflicting facts, figures, and arguments routinely force one to re-calibrate their feelings about the issues at hand. The result is a lament for both the animals at the center of so many crosshairs, and for a modern world seemingly only capable of saving lives by taking them.