Interview: Trophy, a new conservation film

Directors of Trophy, Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau, discuss their film

World of Animals was invited to the UK press screening of a new trophy hunting documentary that certainly doesn’t pull its punches

Animal lovers be warned, Trophy does not make for easy viewing, in any sense of the phrase. The directors — Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau — look unflinchingly at a world that many of us would rather never see, including the hunting of some of the planet’s most iconic species. But arguably even more challenging than the stomach-churningly graphic scenes is the philosophical turmoil that this documentary stirs up. A topic that seemed pretty black and white when you arrive will likely feel a whole lot greyer by the end.

Trophy offers a multi-faceted look at the blood sport industry (and beyond) through a series of intimate interviews, day-in-the-life footage and shocking statistics. Interviewees include life-long hunters, animal welfare activists, an ecologist, an anti-poaching ranger, hunting holiday operators and the owner of the world’s largest private rhino farm. While it’s unlikely any one of these will change your standpoint on trophy hunting — in fact, some may well reinforce your existing point of view — the overall film does bring one stark fact into focus: wildlife conservation is far more complex than you probably ever imagined.


Why did you want to make a film about trophy hunting?

S: About four years ago we ran across an article about big game hunting online. I was initially disgusted by it, but Christina, even though she didn’t necessarily like it, wasn’t as shocked. However, it intrigued me and felt like such a polarising subject that I wanted to know more.


C: I grew up in northern Minnesota, where hunting is a very common practice. I spent a lot of time with friends in deer stands and camps, even though I never hunted myself. Shaul couldn’t understand how people could hunt a deer or a lion or an elephant, whereas it wasn’t foreign to me because the idea and practice of it had always existed for me growing up.

One thing that attracts us both to filmmaking is taking a viewer into a world where you don’t have access. We like bringing audiences into places that they’ve maybe just heard of but don’t actually know from the inside. The industry of big game hunting and breeding is such a closed and secretive world – we wanted to meet the people who were defining it.


What were the biggest challenges you faced when making it?


One of the biggest challenges was the access. This is a world that is closed to the outside and is very weary to be mocked by filmmakers and journalists. To build a steady rapport with our characters and the industry took a long time. Some relationships were solid throughout while some were lost. At the end, we hope and believe that we represented the participants in an honest and fair way.


What do you hope audiences will take away from Trophy?


The ability for us to grapple with the complex issues of this subject is the same journey we hope that the audience will take. We want viewers to come into the theatre with their preconceived notions of what they feel about this subject and leave with questions challenging their own beliefs while learning something new in the process.  We don’t, necessarily, have a direct call for action, but rather a call for discussion. Unlike other films in this arena, Trophy will not give you a one, two, or three list of how to save wildlife, mostly because it is much more complicated than that. We do strongly believe that while this issue is intensively polarising all sides, they want the same results. We all want to see species like rhino, elephant and lion continue to thrive on this planet. We all want the same thing, we just sharply disagree on how to get there. What we have learned is that the truth does not lie on one side, and that if we want to protect wildlife we will all have to pitch in. Again, Trophy aims to create a dialogue and make people from both sides of the argument dare to put down their pre-conceived notions and challenge themselves to think differently by listening to their counterparts.


Did working on this film change your perspective about trophy hunting/farmed rhinos etc in any way?


Our perspective definitely changed along the way. A think big, initial ‘A ha’ moment was understanding who John Hume [a South African who runs the world’s largest rhino farm] was and the feeling that whether you agree with him or not he is genuine about his cause. When we started the project we saw how demonised John had been by various animal rights organisations and mainstream media. And at first we were challenged by the idea that breeding and putting value on an animal could, in his case, help conserve the species on a large scale. However, as we got to know him we started to understand the complexities. John is not in it only for the money; he is really trying to change the way we think about the conservation of rhinos.


How do you think the world of trophy hunting will have changed in 50 years’ time?


The younger generations, generally in the west, are moving away from hunting as a practice. There will always be those that hunt and those who, in the purest form, are against any use of animals by humans.  But, with that said, there is still a large community who believes that when you place economic value on animals it will, in the long run, help aid in conservation. When we were initially introduced to the concept of putting economic value on animals we were sceptical, but as we saw this concept play out in hunting and breeding we started to take it seriously. Conservation requires money and the economic model of ‘if it pays it stays’ is very interesting, and we didn’t think we should just wave it off. We think that this same complicated subject will still be a polarised conversation 50 years from now, but one thing is for sure — if we don’t identify creative solutions for conservation we will not have many wild animals left 50 years from now, and that’s a sad reality.


Trophy was released in the UK in cinemas and on DVD and digital download on 17 November 2017.


Words: Adam Millward