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Director Shaul Schwartz exposes big game hunting in 'Trophy'

An armed private security team patrols amongst some of John Hume's 1500 rhinos in Buffalo Dream Ranch, North West Province, South Africa in 2016.
An armed private security team patrols amongst some of John Hume's 1500 rhinos in Buffalo Dream Ranch, North West Province, South Africa in 2016.
Shaul Schwarz / Reel Peak Films

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In 2015, when Cecil the lion was killed by an American dentist on a big game hunt in Africa, the image went viral and created an uproar online. But it also brought to light the culture in which people pay huge amounts of money to visit fenced-in game reserves where, like some sort of  theme park attraction, they can hunt "The Big Five" — lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino, and elephant.

The new documentary, "Trophy," (opening 9/8 in NY; 9/15 in LA) goes inside this world, where many of the hunters see themselves as participating in an effort to conserve the animal kingdom, even while they’re shooting for sport and collecting taxidermy to hang in their living rooms.


"Trophy" is directed by Shaul Schwartz and Christina Clusiau. When Schwartz stopped by The Frame, he talked about how they wanted to make people think about this issue through a broader lens.


What Schwartz wanted to show in "Trophy":

What the film wants to point out is the complexity of the issue, and the complexity of the issue does come back to: we do domesticate animals, we have for thousands of years. We use them in quite a lot of ways, the majority of us do. You know, if you're a vegan and you just don't use animals, you don't use leather, I hear this. You got an argument. I'm not that. So that's what kind of made us look in the mirror and start scratching our heads and say, Where's the line? When is this right? It's not my taste to go hunting, but what does it mean?

On working with the hunter Philip Glass, who is featured in the film:

It was hard. Hunters have a lot of mistrust in us, in the outside world. It's one of these private clubs. To the outside world, they've been burned, they're scared. Philip was a particularly interesting fellow from the get-go. We actually met him when he was on the way to start his "Big Five" hunt of an elephant. And he basically was very sure of himself. He never held back and all he said to us was, I just wanted you to show that I'm an ethical hunter and that I do everything legal and that I believe in what I do. And if you respect me, I don't really care what people will think. And I remember telling him, You know, a lot of people will really hate you. I think Philip wasn't worried about it. He's one of those people. He is who he is. You can like him, you could hate him — that's just who he is.

On witnessing the slow death of an elephant:

It was terrible. It was probably the most hurtful, hardest thing I've seen. Elephants are particularly majestic. I have a very strong memory of the crying [by] the other live elephants as they ran away. Although we knew that was the deal — we were walking in the bush for a couple of days in full pursuit to film it — it was hard. It was extremely sad to me.

On the argument for how big game hunting helps local communities:

A couple of hours after the elephant was killed by Philip [Glass], a lot of local people basically start saying that was something called an "own use" hunt. Philip actually didn't take away the elephant's skin as a trophy, but rather the whole elephant gets eaten as bush meat [by] the local tribes. It changed what I thought a bit because, eventually, if we want elephants to be around, we have to make it so that Africans get something from it, also have an interest in that. Now there's many ways to do it, but elephants are being poached for their [tusks], there's so many different aspects that are hurting them and are against them.

Now, certainly, a man from Texas wanting to shoot one seems like a terribly bad thing to do. In theory, what the hunters will claim is, Well, if there's a small quota, and that part of the area we're on there were seven elephants allowed to be taken a year. And if that money and meat is given back to the community, and they don't poach because they're receiving money and it's being passed around, then maybe that can help and lower poaching. And maybe then that is a sustainable way of going. Does it in the moment make it less sad? Not to me. It was very sad.

On the sanitized photos that hunters take with big game animals after they've been killed:

The taking of these pictures is this kind of weird act where everything 's cleaned up to perfection. And it's funny because only the hunters ... know exactly how it really looks. Yet the ritual is to sanitize it, cover it up, photograph it from the bottom so the animal looks as big as it is. There's so many traditions that go along with trophy hunting. And the one that did stick [with] us is this idea of the perfect photo that has no blood. It's almost contradictory to the hunt.

To hear John Horn's full interview with Shaul Schwartz, click on the player above.

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