July 2015 had just begun. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was a two-week old joke and for a few short moments, the world was captivated by something that now trembles in comparison: the killing of a lion named Cecil. Walter Palmer, a Minnesotan dentist responsible for Cecil the lion’s slaughter, was about to become the most hated dental surgeon in America. Cecil soon became the symbol for a short-lived public conversation on the ethics of big game hunting. “Trophy,” the new documentary from Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz, not only discusses the killing of Cecil, but it also takes a broader look at the industries that fuel big game hunting, those who oppose those industries and those who fall somewhere in between.
Many people will see the conversation in black and white, with most erring on the side of considering big game hunting to be evil and wrong. While “Trophy” makes no attempts to sway the viewer from any one point of view, it shines a light on the complexities of the situation and the importance of talking about — and acting on — issues that do not always affect our lives directly.
Beautifully shot and unflinchingly brutal, the people “Trophy” follows may be hard to sympathize with at first — if at all. The film understands this. One of the major players is introduced as he guides his young son towards his first kill, taking a picture of him with his newly deceased buck with one simple instruction: “Smile.” However, you will do anything but. Dozens of moments leave the viewer’s jaw firmly set on the floor as they marvel at several scenes — a high energy auction during which people bid on future hunts, a hunter laughing as they excuse killing a crocodile because “crocodiles are really mean,” and a woman lamenting over not being able to kill a giraffe because she didn’t have room for it at home. The film makes no attempts to humanize these people, and instead offers sound bites that feel more like Hannibal Lecter dialogue than anything else, while still allowing each side to make their point.
The film bloats its length to 110 minutes, with scene after scene of brutal hunts and their aftermaths, but no one can accuse this thoroughly researched documentary of being anything but honest. While the viewer may yearn for a pure cinematic condemnation of big game hunting, the film’s overall effect is best distilled into its most beautiful shot: an overhead look at an elephant, dead on the ground after its execution, surrounded by nothing but the flatlands of Africa. The camera rises further and further from the ground, and as it does, statistics about elephant hunting begin to obscure the disquieting image. That is the essence of “Trophy” — moments of horrific beauty with a noble commitment to impartiality.
“Trophy” opened at the Quad Cinema at 34 W. 13th St. on Sept. 8.
Email Tyler Stevens at [email protected]