The American rancher Philip Glass, who raises sheep in Texas and hunts big game for recreational purposes, is seen on the screen shooting and killing a lion. The viewer's heart sinks at the sight of the large animal collapsing on a pile of branches in the middle of a thicket.
Glass' fellow hunters pat him on the back and complement him on the excellent shot. He sits down near his prey, pets the lion's gold fur and begins sobbing. It's hard to know whether he's crying because of a surge of excitement, a sudden fit of remorse, an adrenaline boost or sheer happiness.
A moment later, he has already regained his composure, tugging at the branches under the lion's body so that he can get a better, cleaner victory photo. Darkness falls. The flash photography at the scene is reminiscent of a horror movie.
Rancher-hunter Glass is one of the main characters in the documentary film "Trophy," which might be more aptly titled "Plunder." It was directed by an Israeli, Shaul Schwarz, and his partner Christina Clusiau. The film, produced by Israel's Yes Docu, won an Emmy Award last week for best nature documentary. It isn't your run–of–the–mill nature film, and doesn't present what you might be used to from the genre.
"Trophy" doesn't automatically side with opponents of hunting. It doesn’t take hunters to task or present them as the scum of the earth. Glass is a hunter but he is also portrayed in the movie as a likeable, smiling guy, a family man who loves animals and has a dream: Hunting the five big ones – the lion, elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo and leopard. At the end of the film, it turns out that he managed to hunt down four of the five.
Speaking to Haaretz from New York on the day after the Emmy win, Schwarz says that Glass has a psychosis. "It's not normal to want to hunt a lion. It's repulsive but I believe him that he loves it, that it's his passion. He is human and he's doing something that's legal. Of course he pays hundreds of thousands of dollars to fulfill his dream."
The reactions to Glass from viewers who have seen the film have been very negative, Schwarz admits. Glass is presented in the film as very human, not a monster. He talks about his father, plays with his children (in the opening scene he can be seen hunting a gazelle with his son Jasper) and celebrates a birthday with his family.
The question presented by the movie is whether Glass' "psychosis" is helping to protect nature. Can income from legal hunting ultimately help protect endangered species? Is it possible that that the continued existence of the hunting industry could actual ensure the survival of species threatened with extinction?
No sugarcoating the gory process
Schwarz and Clusiau's film was released in 2017 and was shown at the Sundance and Jerusalem film festivals. In conversation with Haaretz, Schwarz acknowledges that he and Clusiau had undergone a transformation in making "Trophy."
"We went into it as nature lovers. Hunting seemed horrific to us. We attended a hunters' convention in Las Vegas and came back shocked, but then we went to Africa and understood that the subject was a thousand times more complicated than what we thought. In the United States, it's very easy to say: 'Save the lions and the elephants. They are so cute.' In Africa, things look different. You understand there that an elephant is a very dangerous animal that causes a huge amount of damage and that there may be logic in hunting permits. You also understand that you need to motivate residents to protect the animals. Five years after this journey began, I can't tell you flat out what I think about hunting, other than that it's more complicated than what people think. We've chosen to be frank in the film, presenting what we were feeling and letting the viewer decide what's right."
"We don't have a definitive answer," Schwarz says. "The clearest thing is that we have changed while working on the film. That's a development that we're proud of. That's important for journalists. We need to be very leery of becoming people who don't listen. In this film, we have chosen to listen, even if it doesn’t make us popular."
Schwarz, who has lived in the United States for the past 20 years, previously worked as a photographer for Israeli daily Maariv and for Reuters. He has also done photography work for major American publications such as National Geographic and the New York Times. Six years ago, he decided to make the switch to documentary filmmaking "to tell the story more completely, but I still wear a journalist's hat. I haven't taken it off for a moment." His prior film dealt with drug trafficking in Mexico.
The photography in "Trophy" is outstanding, shocking and moving. It doesn't try to sugarcoat the process. Rather, it documents it in its entirety — from seeking the animal out to the hit, followed by the stuffing of the victim by a taxidermist. It's not always easy to watch, but the presentation is impressive.
The major shift in the perspective of the creators of "Trophy" began after meeting up in South Africa with John Hume, the owner of a ranch with 1,400 rhinoceroses. Hume touts an unconventional approach. In endless succession, he anesthetizes the animals and cuts off their valuable horns. Somewhat similar to finger nails, the horns grow back after a few years.
Hume says that he is storing the horns until he can sell them legally. He has several thousand of them and they're worth millions. A real treasure.
As Hume would have it, his is the only way to protect the rhinos from illegal hunting. And he says that if he were able to, he would free the rhinos that are shorn of their horns into the wild. Without horns, they are not a desirable target of illegal hunting.
'In Africa, things look different'
A hundred years ago, the earth was home to half a million rhinos, but now there are only 30,000. Philip Glass, the Texas rancher, paid $35,000 to hunt a rhinoceros. Seventy percent of hunters come to Africa from the United States and Canada.
Shockingly, they hunt down everything. In 1900, there were 10 million elephants in the world. Now there are just 300,000. Most of the hunting has been carried out illegally and without a permit.
What changed during your meeting with Hume?
"We came with the approach of 'what's screwed up here?' But we became convinced there that this man wasn't lying. He wasn't bluffing. He was offering a solution that he believes in. We understood that if we continued down the current path, there was no chance that we could see rhinos in another 20 years. He was offering a practical direction that would permit returning them into the wild. In other words, he's saying that if we saw off and legitimately sell rhino horns, the illegal hunters wouldn't hunt them. That's how we will save the rhinos' lives, but we need to be allowed to do it legally — trading in rhino horns. It's not easy to see rhinos at a ranch dealt with like a herd of cattle, but we became convinced that he loves animals."
The sense of the viewer of the film is that you fell in love with the characters.
"The director of a documentary uses his characters to tell something bigger. The participants in the film are very human. They have allowed us to film them even during their most difficult, moving and intimate movements. The barriers came down and we clearly became closer. Chris Moore, for example, is in my view the most interesting example because he is a wonderful man who works with the locals to protect nature and acknowledges that in this context, they sometimes need to kill animals. He describes the conflict very well. He hates killing animals and is forced to do so, despite the fact that he can't sleep afterwards. He proves that it's not black and white.
"The reality is more complicated than what we wanted to see, and Chris' is the best solution because he is always looking for value for the locals. It's a fine balance: How to make the locals feel that hunting and the entire system is theirs. From the moment that we give them value, we have won. We need to acknowledge that it's impossible to do that only through tourism. Safari tourism is maybe two percent of the tourist revenue in Africa. What happens with the great mass? We need to provide more than that. That's the point that environmental groups don't want to hear. During my time in Africa, I understood that we need to cause everyone to talk to one another. The environmentalists and hunters need to talk so that there are also wild animals in Africa in the future. It's currently very difficult to encourage a dialogue because there is a chasm of hatred between the hunters and environmentalists. We tried to create joint panels and the two sides blasted us.
At the moment, the feeling is that everybody hates everybody. The environmentalists expected the film to be very harsh with the hunters. Classic nature films are propaganda films, but they're too pretty and light. In Africa things look different."
Were you surprised that your film won?
"I thought we had the strongest film in the category but I knew that we were in no way politically correct, particularly in the American context. That's why I didn't think we would win, and I was surprised. Winning an Emmy is my second surprise with this film. The first came when Yes Docu decided to participate in funding it. This isn't a film about Israel or about the conflict in the country but nevertheless, they had the courage, and maybe also the faith in me as a director, to support us. That can't at all be taken for granted."