One of the more welcome developments of recent years in independent films and documentaries has been the swing away from rough, handheld aesthetics — which dominated the early 2000s — toward a more elegant, cinematically sophisticated approach. The vérité style usually is coded as authentic and immediate, but it can be just as deliberate, or as “phony,” as a static shot or a carefully organized dolly. Especially in the realm of nonfiction, more purposeful, composed filmmaking has foregrounded issues of authorship, authenticity and voyeurism. Take Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau’s Trophy — a documentary that is simultaneously gorgeous and unwatchable. Its very form embodies the film’s central, and very controversial, conflict.
Trophy looks at the people who breed and preserve endangered wild animals and then allow those creatures to be hunted or harvested. Their argument — that by raising these animals in protected environments, they are saving them from extinction — is an old one, an offshoot of the notion that hunters were the first conservationists. Big-game hunting helps pay for the farms, puts money back into local communities and channels hunting activity toward regulated businesses, instead of leaving these animals to the mercy of indiscriminate poachers.
It’s a hell of an argument. Schwarz and Clusiau allow these people to voice their views but never flinch from showing us the animals being killed — deer and lions and elephants and antelope being shot, their corpses then photographed with their killers standing over them, grinning and casually making jokes. The interviews say one thing, the nauseating visuals say another. And, as if to add to the discomfort, the filmmakers have made this footage technically lovely: The camera moves with purpose and grace, and the lighting is always just right. By making the horror beautiful, they dare us to watch.
To be fair, the debate has several layers, and the interview subjects all have their own motivations. John Hume is the world’s largest private rhino breeder, with an operation that has 1,500 rhinos; he doesn’t kill his rhinos but he does trim their horns every couple of years — a grisly effort that Trophy depicts in close detail. Hume’s practical attitude seems to be quite different, however, from that of Philip Glass, a Texas man obsessed with hunting and safaris, and whose Christian faith teaches him that God gave humanity dominion over the Earth and all its creatures. Late in the film, after a long and difficult hunt, we see Glass sitting over his prey and crying — but it’s hard to tell if his tears are for the living being that he’s just killed or for his own sense of accomplishment. (We also see him haplessly try to engage animal-rights activists on a street in Las Vegas, and it’s clear that both sides are completely talking past each other.)
The men interviewed for Trophy all seem quite confident in their beliefs — until they’re not. After proclaiming the values of safaris and hunting, one breeder is asked whether he’s ever gotten particularly attached to any of the animals that he later had to allow to be killed. He becomes inconsolable and walks off camera. “There are animals that you can’t let go of,” we hear him whimper off-screen. So, is this hypocrisy talking? Or is it simply that he has to overcome his own emotions in order to enable what he sees as a greater good? The film leaves that question up to us. Don’t let the beauty of its images fool you; it’s a supremely confrontational, even infuriating work. It’s hard to know what to make of Trophy, and something tells me the filmmakers wouldn’t want it any other way.