Trophy is a documentary about trophy hunting in Africa and the industry that has sprung up around it. The film has a broad focus; it comes at the topic in a lot of different ways. It looks at the tourists (almost always American) who go to Africa to engage in trophy hunting; the people who run the hunting businesses; conservationists who go to great lengths to try to stop it; and more. The parallels to Blackfish, a documentary I absolutely loved from a few years ago about the mistreatment of killer whales at Sea World, are obvious, but this film is actually very different in tone. I loved Blackfish’s righteous indignation and anger; it was a real polemic of the kind you rarely see these days. But Trophy is sad more than it’s angry and it is also a movie that’s trying very hard to get into nuances of this debate. There’s a guy who runs a hunting business that argues, and genuinely believes, that trophy hunting is the secret to saving species from extinction, that as long as these animals are making money they’ll always be around. There’s a heartwrenching scene where you see his real love for these animals come through and yet he’s essentially breeding animals and raising them just to release them to be brutally killed by hunters. There’s a sequence that follows a group of anti-poacher conservationists, but they’ve had to hire private security forces to stop poachers because the government can’t handle the problem; when these private security forces raid a suspected poacher’s house at night and put machine guns up to the heads of his wife and young children, you can’t help but wonder exactly where you draw some lines. The film then doesn’t really demonize any of its subjects; it just presents the issues in some really troubling ways. The film would be troubling enough just philosophically, but the film was released unrated because of the most haunting element of the film: a lot of violent, disturbing animal death. The movie, as it wrestles with a lot of other issues, seems to believe that only one thing is absolutely true: the act of killing these animals is ugly and disturbing. So, the camera just sits on these acts of violence and lets you feel them down to the bone. In one scene, a band of hunters down an elephant and deliver the fatal shot. But once that shot is delivered, it still takes the animal time to die. And the camera just sits on the downed elephant, on the faces of the man who’ve killed it, as we watch it struggle for breath, struggle to move, finally succumb. The shots of the men, waiting around for the animal to die, are almost unbearable. They look at the ground, at the sky, never at each other; it’s a scene of intense awkwardness, as if they’ve snuffed out a life, but they can’t allow them to celebrate it, as they indeed do, until the struggle for life is finally over. There’s an even more disturbing scene with a crocodile, but I’ll leave that for the viewer to discover on their own. One of the main characters, Philip, a Texan who is obsessed with completing his set of big game kills, is a man that becomes very unlikable, but when the climax of the film finally comes, it’s on one of his expeditions. No spoilers, but it’s one of the most troubling and unsettling scenes in the film, precisely because the movie just sits with him and refuses to tell us how we should feel. It’s as powerful a movie climax as I’ve seen this year and a deeply, deeply haunting one. Trophy isn’t for the faint of heart perhaps, but I think it’s a movie that absolutely cries out to be seen. As a cinematic experience, it’s gripping, compelling, terrifying, heart-breaking and beautiful. It’s a film that will leave you deeply troubled for a whole host of reasons. Trophy is going to fly right under the radar; it’s a very small documentary and it has the added stigma of actually featuring real, often violent animal death, but then maybe that’s the key to understanding this film. Most nature documentaries feature animal death as they explore the predator-prey relationship. It’s just that in this particular case, humanity is the predator. With those other predators, the reasons for the kill are pretty obvious: survival. When it comes to us, to the people in this film, the reasons aren’t nearly as clear. 4 stars.
tl;dr – gripping, disturbing documentary examines the world of big-game hunting in Africa; surprisingly nuanced & artistic, but also intensely troubling and haunting, this is a must-see. 4 stars.