In the documentary film “Trophy,” filmmakers Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau turn their cameras on the hunting industry and take an in-depth look at why hunters and environmentalists are at odds when it comes to finding the best way to conserve wildlife species. One of these hunters featured in the film, Philip Glass, is on a personal journey to hunt the Big Five (buffalo, leopard, elephant, lion and rhino). Glass considers himself a conversationalist because he says the money he spends on hunting goes back to local communities to help conserve the wild animals. It might sound like an insane theory to some anti-hunting activists, if it weren’t true. Many times, the hundreds of thousands of dollars hunters spend on hunting big game is spent on protect the same animals being hunted for sport.
During an interview with me last year at the South by Southwest Film Festival, Schwarz, Clusiau and Glass talked to me about the controversial subject and how hunting elephants and rhino is actually helping conserve their species.
As documentarians, I’m sure you followed the story wherever it led you, but how did the it evolve for you on a personal level? Did you notice your own opinions changing?
Christina Clusiau: When you start making a documentary, it’s really about what you’re interested in, what you’re curious about and how it affects you. But as time goes on, it becomes about the characters and the lives that are involved. It also becomes about the viewer. It’s interesting to go through that process and hand the film off and let it have legs. In turn, you’re changed not only from your own perspective, but it also changes you in how other people are receiving the film.
Something loved about this film is how balanced it is. When it comes to documentaries, especially ones about the environment, they can be very one sided in my opinion. Was that a goal from the very beginning – to present a case for both sides and let the viewers decide?
Shaul Schwarz: I love stories that challenge me. I think I was always taught as a journalist to be very open to the other side. It seems so basic, but we are living in strange days where everybody likes to scream their own thing and not listen to anybody else’s voice. I think in this film, we prove that we need to give the viewer a chance to listen and to see what different sides think, especially with “environmental docs.” Not to mock them because there have been some great ones out there that have won the Oscar, but they’re usually very one sided. That’s the honest truth. We made it a point to make you question things and look deeper and not tell you how to solve things.
Are you worried that some viewers might find it frustrating that you’re not giving them the answers? You see a documentary like “The Cove” and by the end of that film viewers understand what the filmmakers are trying to say without question. With “Trophy,” you leave it up to the viewer to do the work.
SS: I’m not worried. I’ll be happy if they [see the film] and are challenged. I think [the film provides] some solutions to each problem. We try to guide you to make up your own mind. I think if you come into the film one way, you’re not necessarily going to come out of the film the same way. I think that goes for both sides. I think some hunters will come in and they’ll leave scratching their heads and think about what they just saw.
CC: There’s not one simple solution. It’s much more complex than that. I think we really learned about the complexity that is within these worlds. We went in with one notion and left with another. I think it’s important to show that it’s not so simple.
SS: If someone told me three years ago that they were going to propose that the way to save rhinos is to cut their horns off and legalize the trade [of rhino horn], I would’ve thought they were nuts. But I don’t think that now. If we can get away from the idea that only one side has all the answers and talk about solutions, then we’re taking huge step forward.
CC: It’s such a polarizing subject for many people, so to get these two side to talk is most important. Maybe through these conversations, there will be some creative solutions that come out of it – solutions that maybe people didn’t think were viable before talking about them. Maybe there is a way to bridge the sides.
What about you, Philip? As a hunter, did you come out of this film with more of an understanding about the other side and their concerns about big game hunting?
Philip Glass: I really enjoyed hearing from the ecologist in the documentary, who is a middle-of-the-road kind of guy. I know my side, the hunting side, and I know the anti-hunting side, so hearing that middle-ground figure was interesting. That opened my eyes. I think what Shaul and Christina were trying to do with this story was to create this conversation among these different groups of people. That was very cool to me to see that happen.
This issue is complex enough, but during the film you decided to start quoting Bible scripture to support the reasons why you hunt, and I almost screamed at the screen like, “No! Why do you want to make this more complicated by adding religion to the conversation!?”
I bring this up because, as the film shows, there are people who believe that rhino horn can cure many ailments and diseases. Do you believe that?
PG: I don’t think rhino horn has any medicinal qualities at all, but if what is going to save their species is to cut off their horns and sell them, then we have to come to terms with that. But, no, I think [that belief] is crazy, but it’s been around for three or four thousand years, so we’re not going to change their minds.
Right, so what I’m getting at is that some people might think you’re crazy when you paraphrase scripture and say that “man has dominion over animal.”
PG: Sure. Some people don’t believe that. Some people say any hunting is abusive and wrong. But that’s simply just not the case.
After all this, do you still plan on killing a rhino?
PG: Yes, certainly.
So, where does it end for you? I know you’re passing these interests on to your son, so if he came to you and said he wanted to hunt big game, too, would you be in favor of that?
PG: I’d be for it, but I don’t know if I would pay for it. (Laughs) But that is going to be up to him and what he wants his personal journey to be. My personal journey is not just hunting the Big Five, but also hunting in the wildest places in the world – hunting in the most remote places in Africa and Asia. What is my end game? As long as I’m able physically and financially, I want to go all around the world.
SS: I think it’s important for people to go into this film to not get too caught up on how their feelings are different from whoever else. Let’s say all these hunters are completely crazy, out of their mind, barbaric. They should be asking, “How can I use that to help conserve animals?” That’s an interesting question. If you rule that out completely, I think you’re wrong. If you buy into it completely, I think you’re wrong, too.
So, Philip, for people that don’t understand, how does killing that elephant we see you kill in the film help conservation?
PG: That elephant was not a trophy. I paid all that money and went over there and did that hunt and just took a picture. I didn’t take anything home. That’s always the argument used again us: You want that trophy for your wall. But I didn’t do that. I gave them all the money and the meat and the tusks because it was their property. I didn’t even get to choose the [elephant]. I think that is the greatest example of conservation because I didn’t get anything out of it. I gave them the money and [hunted] the animal they requested according to their biologists.
CC: I think it’s really utopian from a Western perspective to think that if we just left these animals alone, they’re just going to exist and exist and exist. I think in today’s world, it doesn’t work like that. There’s so much loss of habitat and so much human encroachment, so the solution to conserve may not be in your mind to kill something to conserve it. It may not be the way you want to think about the world. But in reality, in certain areas and certain places, the wildlife itself is their only source of revenue. If there is not an economic value on an animal, no one is going to want to look after it. If you’re in one of these places and a lion comes in and eats your goats and that’s your only source of revenue, you’re going to want to kill that lion. In some of these remote areas, that could really be their only source of livelihood. So, they have a hunter come in to hunt that lion. The money that the hunter brings in actually provides a lot more than just the trophy itself. In the Western world, we have this perspective that the lion is Simba, the elephant is Dumbo. Maybe that’s not the way we should be thinking about these things.
SS: To be clear, we’re not advocating that hunting is the only solution. We’re not saying that. I don’t think most hunters would claim that. It’s a complex effort, specifically in Africa. This idea of, “Just leave it alone,” is uneducated.