One of the most talked about documentaries to premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival was Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz’s Trophy. What many assumed would be an indictment of the trophy hunting industry, Trophy is a multi-layered examination of the negatives and positives sides of the high-priced sport. From hunters to conservationist, Trophy looks at all angles and captures some remarkable, albeit disturbing, images of nature.
Clusiau, who previously directed Aida’s Secrets and A Year in Space, also makes her living as a cinematographer and photojournalist, spending more than three years with her partner researching, filming, and editing this in-depth and compelling documentary.
Lesley Coffin: How did you and Shaul develop the project and go about researching the subject before filming?
Christina Clusiau: The project started at our kitchen table, Shaul and I ran across photos of hunters and he was so shocked by it. I grew up in Minnesota where hunting is very common and I wasn’t as disgusted or upset by the images. So we decided we should learn more about this subject. We first went to Safari Club International, which is where the world completely opened up to us. I didn’t even realize how big an industry this is. You can buy your trophies, your hunts, where you buy your clothing. So that’s where the film’s premise originated, and we always worked as a team, because it felt like we were coming from two different mind sets and spent so much time discussing our different points of views.
Lesley Coffin: I won’t make you speak for him, but as you went through filming what views did you go in with changed by the time you’d wrapped?
Christina Clusiau: Honestly, I think we were going into this thinking we’d be shaming the industry, stating this activity is unacceptable. In terms of trophy hunting, we both went in thinking there are other ways. But as we went deeper, we realized that perspective was irresponsible. Just casting off these issues and views because you’re uncomfortable with the idea of trophy hunting isn’t fair. I think Shaul moved closer to the middle of the issue, understanding a bit more of the purpose. I was closer to the middle when we started because of my upbringing, but we both realized the issue has a lot more grey than just black and white. Conservation is such a huge issue, both sides need to engage in the conversation, and really listen to what the other side’s saying. And we wanted to give voice to those people who believe in the “if it pays, it stays” model. That’s a perspective that’s been cast off in the media.
Lesley Coffin: The three main characters you followed in the film, how did you connect with them and arrange to follow them?
Christina Clusiau: The first person we really connected to, John Hume, was introduced to use by friends of friends who happen to be South African. And we were in South Africa in 2014 filming and they told us “you have to meet this guy. He’s misunderstood.” And when we went, we were told he’s this greedy, evil man who is mistreating animals. And what we found out was, this solution he’s found could be viable. If you look at the rhinos, how they’ve been decimated in the past hundred years, this could be a real solution he’s found. We probably spent the most amount of time with him, and he was the first person to change our mind on the “if it pays it stays” economic model. Then we met Philip in the airport on the way to the elephant hunt. We’d met his outfitter at the Safari Club and were introduced to Philip, and told that he would like us to follow him on the hunt. And he was great because Philip is exactly who he is whether the camera is there or not. He really believes what he says and won’t shy away from that point of view. I assumed he’d go through some change of heart and come to believe there was a different way to conserve animals. But he has a completely different relationship with animals than I do, and he pushed me to try to understand his point of view more. And then we met Chris through Philip, he was staying at his camp. A lot of the money Philip pays goes into Chris’s anti-pouching operations.
Lesley Coffin: When filming things like the elephant hunt or the baby rhino circling its dead mother, is it hard to keep filming and commit to showing the whole picture?
Christina Clusiau: The baby rhino was so hard, because that was our first day with John. And generally a camera provides a kind of shield, keeps you one step removed. But that day it was really hard to stay removed because that baby just pulls at your heartstrings. It was just so shocking and so early in the process. The rhino died of illness, not at the hands of poachers, so it was a different case. But it made us feel for John as a character because he felt so awful for this animal he just wants to protect. And the elephant hunt was one of the hardest. Most of the animals which are hunted are shot once and go down. But having seen elephants in the wild, they are such majestic creatures, seeing one killed was really hard. We were both crying and struggling to hold the camera. But then we were there when they butchered the elephant to feed the villagers, and it really plays with your emotions. To them, they were so happy to be able to take this animals home for food, it kind of messes with your head and heart. I was crying for this animal an hour ago, but it’s able to provide food for so many people. I found myself conflicted a lot during the filming.
Lesley Coffin: Were you aware of all the international laws and economic elements that create this relationship between the visiting hunters and villagers?
Christina Clusiau: I knew some of them, but we definitely had to learn the specifics as we went along. We knew that people pay a small fortune for these animals, for the right to hunt. But what I didn’t know was how much money goes back into conservation and the local communities. The biggest misconception people have is we don’t realize that when someone goes to hunt these animals, they usually take the tusks but leave the animals for the local community. Chris has been stressing to these communities that this is your wildlife, you need to conserve them. And what he means is, if you allow poachers, if you pouch these animals, you are stealing from your own community’s wealth. The only people who make money from poachers are the poachers themselves. But if they allow hunters and keep them on sustainable quota, that money goes into the communities pockets. That was something I never understood. So many people will say, well kill all the poachers, that solves the problem. But it won’t, in a lot of those areas wildlife is their only resource, so take out one poacher and another will come along. So Chris’s really working to re-educate these communities and solve the underlined problems that causing people to turn to pouching.
Lesley Coffin: Have you experienced any backlash from either sides of the debate, the hunters or animal rights activists?
Christina Clusiau: Some people have told us they wanted us to go deeper into the issue of poaching, but for us, that’s part of the larger issue. But the criticism we’ve had hasn’t been too extreme. As for the hunting community, I expected to get harsher criticism, but the majority of people who’ve seen it seem to feel we gave them a fair shake. We did a screening with a bunch of hunters before the film premiered and someone told us “I expected you would throw us under the bus, but you were very fair. And because of that, we’re able to look at ourselves closer in the mirror and say some of our practices our right, but some of them need to be changed.” I think the most important impact this film can have is to present the information in a way that people can really listen to the other sides of the debate. Because it is a more complicated issue than most of us assume.
Lesley Coffin: I wanted to ask about the editing decisions you made, choosing to withhold information and present it gradually, rather than when you first introduce a character or community?
Christina Clusiau: In the first few scenes, we want to throw people into this world, making people feel a bit uncomfortable about what they’ve been thrown into, but would also be familiar to those familiar with hunting. So when we introduce John, and you think he’s about to shoot a rhino, you are incredibly uncomfortable and don’t even understand what you’re seeing. And we want people to immediately have a sense of not
knowing how they feel about what they’re seeing. We wanted the viewer to know that this is going to be a journey that won’t give you all the answers and allow you to ask more questions. Because that’s the way we felt while making it. At the beginning of the editing process we thought we were going to be making a character driven film, but we ultimately realized it was more about the complexity of the issue, and we had to make it more of a subject focused documentary with interesting characters.
© Lesley Coffin (9/11/17) FF2 Media
Middle Photo: Mabula Pro Safaris, South Africa, August 2015: International clients pose for their trophy picture after shooting a wildebeest at Mabula Pro Safaris hunting ranch.
Bottom Photo: Buffalo Dream Ranch, North West Province, South Africa - November 2016:
John Hume, the worlds largest rhino breeder walks among his Rhinos. Mr. Hume had invested more than 50 Million US dollars into his rhino project. He currently is the custodian of over 1500 Rhinos, and fears that without legalization in the trade of Rhino Horn his project will come to an end.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Christina Clusiau / Reel Peak Films)