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TROPHY interview w/ directors Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau

Shaul Schwarz’s and Christina Clusiau’s Trophy explores the complex heart of contemporary issues of animal conservation and commodification at a time when endangered African species such as elephants, rhinos and lions march ever closer to extinction.

This provocative follow-up to Schwarz’s acclaimed Narco Cultura journeys viewers across lush African forests and vast plains and into the world’s largest hunters’ convention in Las Vegas to meet breeders and hunters who passionately believe in animal conservation. A common mantra of these businesses – “if it pays, it stays” – sums up the controversial notion that if you assign monetary value to an animal, it is worth protecting.

Trophy follows Philip Glass, a Texas-based sheep breeder and life-long hunter who is on a quest to collect the “Big Five” (elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, and rhino). Philip is deeply connected to the land and animals. He spends days or weeks tracking animals in their natural environment before getting his kill. He considers himself a conservationist, and believes the dollars he spends hunting in Africa go back to local communities and help preserve the animals he covets for future generations. This is an argument echoed in the work of Chris Moore, a Zimbabwean wildlife officer whose anti-poaching campaign is partially subsidized by big-game hunters like Philip. Chris works with government authorities and communities to keep people safe from wild animals. He also protects those animals from ruthless poachers. The great irony of Chris’s work is that he goes to “extreme lengths” to protect endangered animals, only to have them killed by trophy hunters.

Trophy enters the world of ranched hunting through businessman and self-confessed animal lover Christo Gomes. Christo owns Mabula Pro Safaris in South Africa, which offers all-inclusive guided safaris for hunters from across the world. For $25,000 to $100,000 a hunter can shoot, kill and bring home a great African animal “trophy.” For Christo, the big money comes from specialty breeding that services the tastes and trends of wealthy hunters. About 70% of Christo’s business comes from American hunting clients.

Adding another layer, we meet John Hume, the world’s largest private rhino breeder. Hume believes that legalization of the trade in rhino horn is the only way to save the rhino from extinction. Every two years, he trims his rhinos’ horns and has stockpiled over 5 tons of horn. He has invested $50 million of his life savings into the project and now has nearly 1500 rhino. Yet he remains a controversial figure and enemy of the animal rights movement.

As Africa’s most iconic animals continue to vanish in droves, can the controversial practices of hunting and breeding actually help the numbers thrive? Can assigning a value to an animal possibly help conserve it? What gives humans the right to own animals and to decide whether they live or die? And is there any real future for a “natural” world in our rapidly developing, capitalist world? In Schwarz’s and Clusiau’s richly cinematic safari, anything is possible, and nothing is as you would expect.

Today I had the chance to sit down and chat with the co-directors of TROPHY, Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau. Full disclosure, I had intended to use the audio from this interview for a podcast but the sound quality wasn't good enough to release. So, my apologies to Shaul and Christina for this slightly truncated transcription of our conversation.

CM: Thank you for taking time out of your day to do this, I really appreciate it.

CC: Thank you. How are you?

CM: I'm doing really well, thank you. How’s everything going so far today? I know these press junket interviews can be somewhat grueling.

CC: It’s going great actually.

CM: The first thing I want to talk about is the direction the film ended up taking. The poster for the film shows a close up of a rhino and the title of the film is TROPHY. I had an idea of what the film would be. And I was pleasantly surprised it wasn't what I thought it was going to be at all. Is the final film the same as the film you set out to make in the begining?

CC: Not at all. Early on, Shaul came in screaming about trophy hunting after he saw photos of somebody online standing above a kill, I was in the background like “oh, it’s just trophy hunting, it exists” and he was shocked he didn’t know you could pay to hunt like that. So, initially we just went in to shame the industry but very early on we saw that things aren’t so black and white they are much more complex. You know whether you're dealing with the commercialization of rhino horn, or poaching or hunting… or buying hunts. The industry is far more complex. So, you come into the film with one perspective that you understand your relationship with animals and you leave with many more questions than answers. And we hope that audiences will be willing to take that journey with us.

SS: Just to add one thing on to that. Just by the name, people expect the film to be just about trophy hunting and really what its about is when we put economic value on wildlife. The idea that if “it pays, it stays.” We made the choice to feature people who believe in this model or subscribe to this philosophy. We're trying to give them a stage but we also let them hang themselves and we let you the viewer kind of choose. I have certainly had a journey of anger, and not wanting to listen to them. But, I learned that we all want the same thing at the end of the day. I truly believe everybody wants to see creatures stay and not be extinct. About midway through, we were just like “ha” we just don't agree how to get there. That leads to the question, how do we provoke these people in a way that is provocative but actually creates a discussion? Not just a screaming contest. Where nobody is willing to listen.

CM: The placement that you chose for the animal rights activists… I kind of felt as if I was hearing my own voice in the film. A somewhat naive view of the world because I went in with a certain perception and I felt like an hour in and it had changed. At first, I saw John Hume as the villain of the film because he is raising rhino’s to harvest their horns. However, as the film went along, my view of him and his beliefs changed.

CC: Yeah exactly. That's one thing that we saw when we started to test the film, people would come in thinking one way and after watching the film they would start to question their beliefs. In addition, I think that was also true for the hunting community. Early on we showed the film to a group of hunters and they would come up to us and thank them for giving them a fair shake because as they see it, no one ever does. And because they felt like their voices were being heard they were open to the idea that maybe, not everything is kosher with the hunting world.

SS: I think with John Hume, its interesting that you used that word (villain) because when we first heard about him that’s what people would say. They would talk about a “devilish” guy that we needed to meet. Then when we went to meet him, it was as soon as day one, I started to think, I might not agree with this guy but he’s certainly not fake. The way he would talk when we went out filming, he was so passionate, I mean he talks to his rhinos is the way another man would talk to his kids. We were certainly surprised and we wanted people to go through that same journey. They would start with feelings of anger towards him and then by the time you get to the debate in London or the court case later in the film the audience is uncomfortable watching people give this man shit even though they felt the same way about him an hour ago. To be honest with you, I was a big animal rights organization advocate, it was part of my thing and you know when you hear a slogan like “let the wild wild”, it sounds absolutely amazing but then you see Africans on the ground and you just understand it's more complex. I think there's something not fair and oversimplifying in the big nature films we’ve all seen.

They give you a 1,2,3 to do list in the end and we really find that there isn't that simple of an answer. That we should challenge what we’ve seen and go deeper. And so, yes it might upset some people as it has, but people have to be honest on both sides. I think we're fine with that reaction because they're provoked to think about their approach not having all the answers. Both sides need to give a little bit and come more to the center because there isn't one side that has all this.

CM: I’d like to talk a little bit about Phillip Glass. He seems like a good guy, very dedicated to his family and admires his father greatly. You can see the depth of his heart in the film. While I don't agree with him I think if you don't have compassion for him you are blinded by your own ideology. Showing that and allowing him to give that descending voice was something that you must have been aware of during the editing process. You want people to be heard but you don’t want it to feel like a soapbox or a lecture.

SS: You know it was just a delicate balance. We knew pretty early on that the challenge would be in getting it right. In terms of the edit, leading a viewer on an issue that’s so emotionally charged… it's not that easy. In an early edit for example we had some of the more hardcore, hitting… like the elephant scene more up front and we learned that you just lost the viewer. Then they can’t come back and actually deal with anything of the complexity.

CM: An example of how you dealt with the complexity of the issue is in the opening of the film. That scene is… for me personally a difficult one to pin down. I am disgusted by what this father and son do, but as a dad I can see the genuine affection that he has for his son. I would never do that with one of my boys, but I get that bond.

SS: I came from Israel, so to me it was like why would you shoot Bambi? You know part of choosing Philip as a hunter was that he was a breeder. He has a unique relationship with animals. We were trying to schedule a time to go out and he said “you know I promised Jasper that this weekend he's going to get his first hunt” and at first I thought “oh this will be interesting.” I wonder if he’ll make it. And as I said we initially started the film with a more action packed hardcore scene, Then we thought we should change it somewhere in the middle of the edit and when we put that scene at the beginning we just knew it had be like this is. This opening scene will mean something so different to all of us. And I think it does the trick like you said.

CC: And I think just to add to that, saying that you were able to connect to it through this bond of father son. If you look at it just from the hunting side, a lot of people can connect to it simply because that was their experience as a child. It was a way of pulling in both sides of the issue. It shows that this is this is going to be a little bit challenging but it's also going to be interesting. Then metaphorically, Phillip teaches his son just like his father taught him and now he’s a big game hunter, so will that be the fate of his son? I don't know. But it was showing all these symbolic things and it just made sense at the very beginning. This incredibly complex issue encapsulated in an incredibly simplistic scene.

We tend to surround ourselves with like minded people to some degree. For many of us the only time we really get outside of our little bubbles is Thanksgiving dinner. We don't agree on politics or religion but we can all agree to put that nonsense aside for one meal. Beyond that there are other things we can all agree on. Be it a football game, Trivial Pursuit or whatever common element we happen to share with our loved ones. For me and my dad it was Stanley Kubrick movies. You know, he can sit around and watch Fox News all day, but... I… we, just don’t engage on that level because we can talk for an hour and a half about BARRY LYNDON. Now, I think we have another film we can see eye to eye on in TROPHY.

Opening in LA theaters on Friday, September 15th