Documentaries don’t need to speak to your interests or try to convince you of another point of view. The best films are those that tell stories with real-life characters you can empathize with, whether or not you agree with them. There is a chance that the documentary Trophy could change your mind about big-game hunting or wildlife conservation, but that doesn’t qualify its excellence. The doc’s merit is merely in its successful effort to get us thinking about a complicated issue and complex industry.
Directed by Shaul Schwarz, who previously tackled the Mexican Drug War through different angles with Narco Cultura, this is a much tighter work that also follows a number of different stories related to the more focused subject matter. First, we meet Philip, a typical American hunter, as he takes a young son out to bag his first buck. That scene cuts to what seems like a group killing a rhino, but instead, it’s revealed to be the work of a breeder in South Africa, who cuts his animals’ horns so they won’t be desirable to poachers.
Others profiled include a former cattle rancher who now operates a safari that makes its money offering a certain amount of animals per year, including those in the Big Five trophy category (white rhino, cape buffalo, lion, leopard, and elephant), allowing for the breeding and conservation of more and more. The main case made in the film is that without these pricey game reserves, most of which also provide tourism safaris, these beasts would be in worse endangerment due to poaching and other circumstances.
John, the rhino breeder in South Africa, has his own dilemma. He’s losing money on his breeding but isn’t permitted to sell the horns he removes because it’s believed such trade would encourage the black market and therefore more poaching. That might be true. But if he has to shut down his operations then there’s more likelihood of the rhino population going down anyway. Every piece of the issue is two-pronged, where the reality is, at this point, that we’re damned if we support each side and damned if we don’t.
When we see the illegally slaughtered rhinos and the legal serving up of other animals for an easy close-up kill, it remains difficult for anyone fundamentally against hunting to accept a lesser of two evils for them. Schwarz and co-director/cinematographer Christina Clusiau are thorough in showing the process of the business, and whatever we think of even crocodiles, seeing them wrangled into place by guides so a guy can shoot it in the head at point-blank range is outrageous. That’s clearly not sport.
The filmmakers don’t take one side or another yet they’re also not just sitting on the side lazily observing with indifference. They’re challenged, as well, and that carries forth in the doc. They constantly remind us through their lens how beautiful these creatures are, but ironically that’s not necessarily a good argument for them to be kept alive, as we also see beauty in taxidermy work done on the trophy animals. To counter any misconception that this is all just a frustrating part of a modern world — which it is only to a degree — they also make time to present the permitted local traditional practice of killing elephants where every bit of the animal is used for some purpose.
Where Trophy is strongest, though, is in the respect it gives to the characters as well as in those characters’ respect for the audience. There are plenty of unlikable hunters on screen that are background players, and we can’t know all of them fully, but Philip is a man who comes through expressly with genuine passions and beliefs, and while it’s possible to disagree with him it’s not possible, or at least it’s not fair, to hate him for them. He doesn’t deserve that. All humans should be so honest and be given such an honest forum.
Including Walter Palmer, the dentist who became notorious for killing a lion two years ago, putting the issue of big-game hunting in the media spotlight, with much of what’s covered in this doc left out of the conversation. The only misstep in Trophy, oddly enough, is its own inadequate address of the Cecil the lion story. There’s an assumption of the audience’s familiarity with it and only touches on it briefly, though this would have been a good opportunity to go more into detail on the circumstances there and how they relate to the characters and narratives followed in the film.
Trophy is often difficult to watch, particularly if you love animals, but it’s even more difficult to wrap your head around afterward. Unless you’re totally stubborn in your stance, you can’t walk away from the film without thinking and feeling newly conflicted about the hobby, the industry, the issue, the animals, and especially the people involved.