“The truth doesn't lie with just one side”
An interview with Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau, directors of Trophy
Is big game hunting a murderous sport or one of the keys to saving endangered species? This controversial question lies at the core of this sprawling, complex and beautifully photographed look at the tensions that exist between wildlife conservation and the global hunting industry. A critics favorite at the recent Sundance Film Festival, Trophy journeys from the U.S. to South Africa, surveying an array of sympathetic individuals, including big-game farmers, anti-poaching teams, hunters, and conservation experts, examining the issue from multiple sides and angles. DOC10’s Anthony Kaufman spoke with Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau about their unique take on the topic, their stunning cinematography, and listening to those you don’t always agree with.
Documentary filmmakers are often asked why you are the best people to tell a particular story. Since neither of you are hunters or conservationists, I assume, can you talk about why this story was personally important to you? Obviously, you don't plunge into a subject for so many years without feeling connected to it on some deep level.
Actually we did feel that we were the right people for the project because we were not hunters. As journalists and filmmakers, we are particularly curious about people who feel and think differently from us, and we always take ourselves into situations with that in mind. We might enter into a subject very open-hearted, spend a year covering something and come back and be furious about it, but in general, we think the key to good journalism is to listen to the other and maintain curiosity and interest. We don’t think everybody is going to agree with our characters, but we think that you shouldn’t see them as irrational before you understand where they are coming from. This is how we approached the hunting world. While we are not hunters we care a great deal about wildlife, habitat, ecosystems and solutions to conserve, and thus felt very fit for the job.
Because Trophy is not a simple advocacy documentary, and in fact, explores some fairly controversial topics related to wildlife conservation, was it difficult to get backers to support it? I know you got support, for example, from Impact Partners, but you can't really put this film into a box of social-impact media, because it's hard to say what you're trying to impact. Or am I wrong?
It wasn't that easy to get funding, but it wasn't that hard either. We believe it’s wrong to think that this film doesn’t want to have a social impact. The way we are trying to create an impact is through conversations between two very opposing sides. We think that the truth doesn't lie with just one side and by talking about and bringing both opposing sides to the table, we can create change.
How much of this film was a journey in terms of your direction with it? Given its construction, it feels like things may have changed along the way. Were there any particular revelatory moments you had while making it where you thought: "A ha, I hadn't thought of including this, but I should."
Our perspective definitely changed along the way. Shaul’s perspective changed further than Christina’s as he was not knowledgeable, at all, about hunting and the industry around it. Christina grew up in a community where hunting was common practice. Not a hunter, herself, but was always around family and friends that spend a lot of time hunting. An initial big "A ha" moment was understanding who John Hume was and the feeling that whether you agree with him or not he is genuine to his cause. When we started the project we saw how demonized John had been by various animal rights organizations and mainstream media. And at first we were challenged by the idea that breeding and putting value on an animal could, in his case, help conserve the species on a large scale. However, as we got to know him we started to understand the complexities. John is not in it only for the money; he is really trying to change the way we think about conservation of rhino.
It’s also important to discuss the film's stunning cinematography. I was completely floored by the one shot where the camera hovers high up into the sky over the dead elephant. Can you talk about the conception of that shot as well as the film's overall visual design?
We are photojournalists that have transitioned into cinematographers and documentary film directors. The cinematic quality and look of the film is very important to us. We always shoot our own films and take great pride in the cinematography. In terms of the aerial of the elephan, we had a hard time witnessing that hunt and we wanted the viewer to see, hear, and ultimately feel what we felt. But, we also wanted to give respect to the elephant in a cinematic way. We wanted to portray the elephant’s soul traveling into the heavens.
Perhaps I'm stretching it a bit with this last question, but do you think Trophy might be received differently now, in light of Trump's America? For instance, I think there may be a lot of baggage now attached to Philip Glass, your Texas hunter, and I wonder what you think about that, and how you think the film might reflect our current political divide in this country?
e think the film would have been received similarly if it had come out before the Trump era. We never intended to include politics directly in the film and we intentionally chose not to include anything about the Trump kids, who are avid hunters. The divide in the country, today, is more than ever, clear. In many ways that is similar to the divide in wildlife conservation and the ideas around placing commercial values on animals. All we can say is that by alienating each other and being opposed, without listening to each other, we won't get to solutions on this issue and other issues in the political reality of today. As we said before, we strongly believe that neither side has the whole truth and all solutions. We owe it to the wildlife and our planet to do better than that.