If you don’t like your documentaries to be spoon fed to you and instead appreciate gagging a little on distasteful bits, boy, do I have a film for you. Trophy, a documentary about the potentially pro-conservation efforts by big game hunters, is quite a challenge to the senses. The film is opening in theaters this weekend.

But I’m not entirely buying it. I do appreciate that this film asks hard questions. It defies conventional beliefs. And it’s well made, nicely shot and tells a good yarn. But at what cost? I asked the director, Shaul Schwarz (Narco Cultura), and co-director, Christina Clusia, some questions about their film that humanizes big game hunters and a man, John Hume, who fights to get rhinoceroses off the protected list in South Africa.

It appears you take the position that the film should not take sides on the issue of trophy hunting as a possible key to preventing some wild animals from becoming extinct, correct?

We set out to create a dialogue on what we saw as a polarizing subject. There are two sides that almost never talk to each other. Instead, they tend to scream at each other rather than listen. Generally, all of us have the same goal in mind – to prevent animals from extinction. But sometimes we disagree about how to get there. So yes, we did try to make a balanced film that would engage all sides and encourage the kind of healthy dialogue that is needed in order to conserve wildlife.

What commitments did you make to the subjects about your objectivity or the angle for the film?

From the beginning, we were straightforward with our characters. We took the approach that we didn’t have to agree with them or tell them that we were going to paint them in one light or another; we merely said that we wanted to create dialogue on this very controversial subject honestly and straightforwardly. A good example of this is that with Philip, our main hunting character, we do not agree with everything he thinks or says but we show him as he is and stay true to his beliefs. Philip always asked us to do so and said “I’m an ethical hunter and I believe in what I do.” With that said, Philip also believes that evolution doesn’t exist and that man has dominion over animals. This couldn’t be further away from our beliefs but it honestly shows who he is and he was happy with that being part of the film.

Trophy certainly raises a number of interesting questions about the relationship between hunting and conservation. What role should the film have trying to answer those questions?

Our goal wasn’t to answer questions. Instead, we wanted to show thought-provoking realities that will encourage the viewer to question their assumptions about wildlife conservation. Many people, just like us at the beginning of making the film, approach this subject with preconceived ideas about conservation and how animals should be used or not used. We found that people are rarely open to a discussion that departs from their beliefs. Our aim wasn’t to change viewers thoughts about the issue. We wanted people to challenge what they think and stay open to the complexity of the argument of how placing commercial value on an animal can help create an engine for conservation.

John Hume has a multi-million-dollar self-interest in his cause to harvest rhino horns as a way to conserve them. Isn’t that problematic?

No, it’s not problematic. In fact, it’s what is going to make the argument for his belief stronger. John Hume believes in sustainable utilization, or what is sometimes referred to “if it pays it stays.” Currently, if you have a rhino on your farm you are losing money and attracting poachers. If we were to reverse that and create a model for farmers to have an economic incentive to breed rhinos, surely there would be more people wanting to do so and in turn the population numbers would increase.

Is there a danger to producing a film that makes trophy hunters and the hunting establishment feel justified in preserving what they hold most dear, a successful gun industry and the ability to kill wild animals?

To us the biggest danger that we face today is telling people exactly what they want to hear, and allowing them to think that their way is the only way forward. When it comes to this subject, we all want to get to the same place. That is to see these majestic creatures on this planet for another 10, 20 and 100 years — we just don’t agree on how to get there. We came to the subject being against trophy hunting, particularly Shaul. In fact, in the early stages of the film we thought that we would gain access to the hunting community and shame them. Then we were introduced to the concept of putting economic value on animals and how that can help conserve. [We were] doubtful at first, but as we saw this concept play out in hunting and breeding, we started to take it seriously. Conservation requires money and the economic model of “if it pays it stays” is very interesting and we didn’t think we should just wave it off. It’s generally tiring to see films and journalism that preach to the choir, and [we] think it much more interesting to empower our differences to create dialogue. Trophy by no means gives a “carte blanche” to hunting and certainly not to the gun industry.

Do you think audiences are “getting” the film so far?

Absolutely, we are very happy with the way the audience is understanding and receiving the film. Many viewers arrive to the film close-minded, and they leave with a different perspective.  Viewers, generally, dare to ask questions that they wouldn’t have before watching the film. That’s a positive start to creating dialogue without intimidating one another.

Trophy opens September 8 in New York City and September 15 in Los Angeles. For more information about screenings, visit its official website.

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Published by

Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen