An Interview with Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau

| September 7, 2017

A couple years ago I was cleaning out my father’s basement office at our home in Omaha, Nebraska. My father had been an avid deer hunter and the walls of the room were covered in antlers and paintings depicting a variety of impressive bucks either standing majestically atop a mountain or pensively gazing into a stream.

As I sifted through loose, yellowing papers in a file cabinet I came across a book by Lawrence Koller called, “Shots at Whitetails.” According to the jacket copy it was a hunting classic, and as I flipped through the dusty, tattered pages I came to a section where a folded 1982 Nebraska Hunting Seasons pamphlet acted as a bookmark.

Halfway down the page was a sentence highlighted by my father’s characteristic jagged underlining. It read, “These have not gone the way of many other vanished or vanishing Americans, and we must gratefully thank the Maker of All Things for bestowing on us so abundantly these splendid game animals in ever-increasing numbers.”

The relationship between hunters and conservationists has been a complicated one. Since the 1980s the population of African lions has dropped from 100,000 individuals to 20,000. While the wild number of lions is decreasing, the number of captive-bred lions used for hunting has increased. In South Africa there are about 200 breeding facilities which account for the captivity of nearly 8,000 predators. Hunters claim it is because of their programs and investment that these species can continue to thrive, whereas conservationists see their efforts as cruel and exploitative.

These complex points of view are compellingly explored in Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau’s new documentary Trophy.

The film investigates the powerhouse industries of big-game hunting, breeding and wildlife conservation. From a Texas-based trophy hunter to the world’s largest private rhino breeder in South Africa, the film grapples with the consequences of imposing economic value on animals, and questions whether breeding, farming and hunting offer some of the few remaining options to conserve our endangered species.

Recently I had the opportunity to speak with the filmmakers about the origins of the project and what inspired them to pursue it.

MV: What’s so great about the film is that it takes us into a world that for the general public is mostly unknown, and I have to imagine that some members of the big game hunting community would be reluctant to speak on the topic. Did you find it difficult at all to gain the trust of your subjects?

SS: Well the incident with Cecil the lion threw a bit of a curve ball in making some people feel uncomfortable. We met with many big game hunters who ultimately didn’t make the cut because they were too scared about how they would be portrayed. But with our main hunter Philip Glass it was a little different. He was the same person on and off camera. From the second we met him he was like look, this is what I believe. We would say okay, we agree with you on this but not on that, and it was mostly a comfortable discussion. Really all he wanted was to be portrayed as who he is. He sees himself as an ethical hunter. He does what he does and to him it’s very black and white. To us it’s not so black and white. But I think we chose characters who are comfortable with who they are.

CC: Also I think what really attracted us to Philip beyond his role as a hunter is that he’s also a breeder. His relationship to animals is very different than mine where it’s mostly whatever I eat for dinner. That aspect was interesting and present for all the characters in the film. They have a different relationship to animals than one would expect.

MV: And as you said, it seems like at first glance many people see hunting in black and white terms; you either agree with it, or you don’t. But what’s wonderful about the film is that it explores these intricate gray areas of the subject. You look at someone like Chris Moore who heads this anti-poaching campaign, but then leads hunters to the very animals he’s trying to protect. As you dove deeper into the material, did your initial attitudes towards these hunters and their cause change as well?

SS: Yeah it changed a ton actually. With Chris and why we like him so much is that unlike others he dared to question himself constantly, which we love because people usually have a sharp black and white opinion about the topic. Christina growing up in Minnesota was much more familiar about the world of hunting. You see I grew up in Israel so to me if you killed a deer you killed Bambi. This movie was really born from me being on the computer and coming across a trophy hunting picture and just being shocked and outraged, and Christina’s like yeah so what, it’s trophy hunting. She didn’t understand what I was losing my head over. And so when we dug into these economic models I think we quickly realized we wanted to focus on that. We wanted to portray a cast that believed the if it pays it stays model, and to create a sort of mind and heart game. We’d say okay, trophy hunting is not my cup of tea. I’m disgusted by why someone would want to kill an animal and hang it in their living room. But at the end of the day I learned to say well with what species and in what countries can we use this type of hunting to drive money to the local economies? That’s what we really tried to do in the film. I think it’s a unique subject where all the sides want to get to the same place which is to conserve these animals so that we’ll have them in another hundred years. The problem is we disagree on how to get there. That’s what we really want to push at you, and make you to some degree a little uncomfortable so you dare ask these hard questions.

CC: I think another thing surrounding conservation and the economics behind it is the fact that this avenue is less talked about. If you look at a lot of animal welfare activists they have this utopian idea of let the wildlife remain wild. I think one thing we learned throughout this whole process is how much money it actually takes to conserve animals. There are many ways to do it, but it does cost.

MV: Yes, and I like how you present these complexities. I think a lot of people wouldn’t initially believe hunting to be an effective means of conservation, but here you do not discount it, and show that there are a number of approaches and ideologies behind the practice. From your research, did you find that these captive-breeding programs are making a difference in the long-term preservation of these species? Or is it too early to tell?

CC: Well, you look at South Africa’s model of conservation and they have given the private owner the incentive to breed and make money off these animals and in turn the populations have grown tremendously. In other areas it hasn’t worked so well. There are also areas where eco-tourism is a very important thing, but in those areas you want to see the most amount of game and are forced to go to certain parks. In places like Zimbabwe or Namibia, where a lot of the game areas are off the beaten path, the only real revenue to put towards conservation is from hunting. But from our experience the South African model is really working.

MV: What I also found compelling was how you pick apart views and practices of hunting and how they’ve evolved. Opening the film with Philip teaching his son to hunt is, at least in the American tradition, a very accepted and romantic vision of hunting. But modern big game hunting is far from that; it’s a complex global industry that generates billions of dollars, and has shifted from hunting to survive, to hunting for a trophy. Did you ever come across hunters who frowned upon the kind of hunting that Christo Gomes does on his safaris? That if one does hunt, they should be tracking the game themselves instead of having it brought to them?

SS: Yeah, most hunters are against what has become known as “Canned Hunting.” Philip wouldn’t go hunt on Christo Gomes’ ranch, and obviously it feels like the cards are stacked a bit different when you’re sitting back sipping vodka while shooting animals from a car. With that said, we learned to judge the matter from the economic potential it creates. Some of the canned hunting and these facilities have contributed to the successful South African model. I think there’s this weird separation. Hunters hate canned hunting, and they think it gives them a bad name. They say it doesn’t happen often, but it’s not true. It happens very often. A lot of people hunt like Philip, and a lot of people hunt in these ranches like Christo’s. To me what really counts is the animal’s welfare. When you grow lions in caged fences and only release them two days before a hunt I personally can’t stomach that. Even though it has an economic model that works, it’s very hard for me.

MV: What was your experience like being on the ground and filming in these environments. Were there any complications, or did you ever feel in danger being so close to these animals? Was it difficult to watch them being hunted?

CC: I think it was a little bit of both. Logistically being with Philip was quite challenging. It was just me and Shaul and we were walking 15 or 20 miles a day carrying camera equipment and you end up feeling vulnerable in those environments. For example, an elephant looks majestic when viewed as a tourist from a car, but you have a very different relationship when you’re there on foot and confronted by it.  You realize it’s large and dangerous. As for the actual filmmaking, I think in fact one of the hardest moments was the hunting of the elephant. It was difficult for both Shaul and I because this was the first time we had seen an elephant in the wild, and to be honest it was sad to see him hunted. Because he’s so big it takes a long time for him to die, and all of these things pull at your heart strings. But then after an hour all these villagers come and harvest the elephant for meat. And you realize their relationship is totally different than my relationship. It’s meat. It’s also an animal that tramples their crops and runs over their wealth. So some things were hard, and some things were harder in the mindset.

MV: And it’s interesting you touch on these varying perspectives. For people in the West it’s often easy to say “Oh, just don’t kill the lions,” when in reality they are so far removed from the daily struggles of life in these environments that to suggest something like that seems almost inappropriate. I think you do a wonderful job of presenting not just the perspectives of the wealthy hunters but also the local communities who deal with the threat of animals attacking their livestock and homes.

For this film, and your projects in the past, do you have a good idea of what perspectives you’re going to explore beforehand, or does it take shape and change as you investigate and move about the environments?

SS: Yeah, it’s a weird mix because you always want to direct in your head and know where you’re going, so I think it’s a good back and forth on many levels; from story to characters to visuals. For example, in the moment with the elephant we knew we wanted to display the elephant’s burial in a visually quiet way, and we talked about a big aerial shot going higher and higher into the sky. But you also want to make sure it is a doc and things are constantly going to change and you need to remain open-minded. I mean we went into this doc thinking we were going to change the hunting world and really give it to the supporters. But once we started investigating we realized that was an irresponsible attitude towards what the reality was. I think it’s always this game of trying to give the movie a style, and then being open-minded enough to change, and you do that in the shooting and the editing. I think it’s a game of constantly being open to other avenues.

CC: It’s also important to note that when we set out to do this film a lot of the projects we had worked on together were very character driven pieces, and something that came to us early on in the edit was the realization that we couldn’t tackle the subject and complexities just through the narratives of these characters. So we took a step back from the filmmaking style we usually employ and introduced the talking heads and the more subject-oriented interviews, and that was quite a change for us. I think that really helped shape the entire film. In this case we had four main characters instead of two. So the story line bounced between all these different worlds and I don’t think we could have done that if we hadn’t pulled back and made the project a subject film rather than a character-driven film.

MV: And does a subject have to possess something in particular for you to pursue it? In your work, have you noticed certain themes that appear more than others?

SS: Definitely for me. I like taking the viewer to a world that is very hard to access and flipping it on its head and saying this is not what you may have thought it was. Trying to challenge those preconceived notions of a world that’s very closed to us is attractive to me.

CC: I agree with that too. I’m always interested first and foremost because of curiosity. To enter these places where you don’t necessarily go to, and then with a camera it gives you a tool to investigate and ask questions and understand people from a very different perspective. Then it becomes more about the characters and their lives and experiences. And finally it’s about the audience and how the film stands on its own two feet and how people pull in different perspectives and make different conclusions about it. Going into a project I think about what each of these avenues is going to be, and are they interesting and do they possess depth.

SS: And I’m usually attracted more to people who I disagree with. I think too often in today’s journalism and doc world we’re just preaching to a choir. That’s not the kind of journalism I grew up in, and I think we need to stay curious of one another and listen to one another. It’s so uncommon to come in and listen to the other side open-minded, which is kind of the basic component of journalism. So I personally like choosing issues that I’m not 100% comfortable with and letting them challenge me.

MV: How did you both become interested in storytelling, and in particular the documentary form? Ultimately do you feel there are advantages the documentary form has over scripted, narrative films?

CC: Yes, I came from a photojournalism background. I worked with Time Magazine for a long time as a photo editor and also doing my own photography. But I have to give a lot of credit to Shaul for enticing me towards the documentary aspects of filmmaking. When you’re looking at a still image it sometimes becomes difficult to pull out all the nuances and perspectives available. I think that was one thing missing in photography. I wanted to tell more in depth and creative stories, so I think moving into documentary filmmaking was helpful. But also at times I think it’s a little challenging when creatively in the back of your mind you want to design what you want the scene to be. I think maybe that’s the big difference between narrative and doc. But I’m not so interested in going the narrative route at this point in my career.

SS: I’ve been a photographer for most of my life, and I find it an amazingly powerful medium, but also a silent, minimalistic medium. Whereas film is anything but silent and minimalistic. It happened to me when I was back photographing Mexico’s drug war and I just couldn’t tell it the way I wanted to in still images. So I do love doc filmmaking for that. I think this is the heyday for docs, which is good because print journalism where we came from is not that. With narrative, I mean obviously I love film as a whole and I think it’s interesting, but coming from such a rich journalistic background, to me it would take a project that I feel the doc won’t do the subject justice. But I don’t want to do it just for the sake of doing a big movie or working for a studio. I want to do justice to all my subjects. I want to find the project that feels like it’s the right way to tell the story.

Trophy is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.

About the Author:

Matthew Vasiliauskas is a graduate of Columbia University. His work has appeared in publications such as Conjunctions, Berlin’s Sand Literary Journal, Chicago Literati and The Pennsylvania Review. Matthew currently lives and works in Los Angeles.

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