Sundance Interview: TROPHY’s Christina Clusiau And Shaul Schwarz

The filmmakers discuss their documentary on the complications of the poaching industry.

Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz’s Trophy is a remarkable achievement, a stunning, shattering work that undercuts even the hardest of positions regarding the world of big game hunting. What started out as a anti-hunting doc soon evolved into a highly nuanced, intellectually rigorous take on the complexity of wildlife management in Africa.

Unflinching, uncompromising, unforgettable, the film demonstrates the kind of sophisticated journalism and filmmaking prowess often lacking in the usual raft of unambitious environmental docs that do little else to sate those already convinced of a particular point of view.

We spoke to the directors after their film’s premiere at Sundance.

How did the project begin?

CC: We started three or four years ago. Shaul came across a couple of pictures online of somebody hunting an elephant and standing over it and smiling...

SS: …Cutting its tail off.

CC: I think he was incredibly shocked and outraged. "How can this even be possible?" I grew up in Northern Minnesota where there's a lot of hunting, mostly deer and ducks and small things that are a rite of passage. So I kind of questioned him and went, "Wait, why? Why are you so angry? Let's figure this out."

So we went to Las Vegas for the SCI convention, which is annually held in the beginning of February. About twenty-five thousand people come through there.

SS: It's a monster.

CC: We walked in to this gigantic Mandalay Bay Convention Center. It was incredible how many people, what you can do, what you can see: buy hunts, buy clothing, buy guns.

SS: It's like a whole world around it. There's just so much money involved.

CC: I just think that we didn't realize how big this really was. Then as we continued down the path and went to South Africa, we realized that it was much more complicated than just hunting animals for sport.

Nothing makes me happier than a documentary that messes me up more in the end than I am at the beginning. Could just talk about dealing with moral ambivalency as filmmakers?

SS: That was like our big goal. Particularly in the environmental arena, it's been very black and white….

…Mostly white.

SS: Mostly white, correct.

To make the congregation of team white feel better about the white.

SS: You used the words "feel better". Our motto was this is not a feel-good movie. We felt that there's a lean towards a simple solution. I particularly went through a lot of confusion when I got into what I understood the reality as. We wanted the viewer to kind of feel that journey we took. I think the one thing that really batted us home was this notion, the rhino breeder, John Hume.

…An incredible character.

SS: A great person who's been demonized by media who should be responsible. We were like go meet this guy [and for some] he's a devil, [simply] trying to enrich himself over a species that is closest to extinction. I'm not forcing anyone to agree with his ideas of legalization but shaming us to not have a discussion about it is just wrong. It's an animal that doesn't have to die, it carries the most expensive animal commodity in the world, and that's what's killing it. Right there is the spin that could save it-that it's carrying the most and it's renewable, it's like our fingernails. That really hit us over the head in terms of, "Okay, as a film let's be complex, let's challenge that emotion, let's edit it and direct it in a way that you take that journey".

As opposed to simple docs that are just commercials for you to donate to a specific website and feel you’ve directly saved the world

CC: A lot of people ask us too, "What can we do?", and I think that in itself is a complicated question.

Have you found a way of getting differing audiences to engage with the work?

SS: We're seeing it a little bit on the hunting side. We haven't been able to get enough of that crowd yet, but we're going to go after it. If you're coming in with "I'm here, she's there" and it's a religion fight, nobody wants to give up an inch. I think what we're trying to do is take off that shield and meet in the middle because you don't have the whole truth. Hunting is not this magical solution to everything. It's got a lot of wrong but we shouldn't just delete it because it feels wrong. Our big thing is "let's debate this seriously, not in a super quick way". People want [a quick] "What's the answer?" but there are a million different species and a million different realities in a lot of different countries. We've only done this for three years so we don't have all the answers.

When you are constructing the narrative, clearly you are trying to tell a story and you can't just leave the audience feeling miserable, but you have to engage them on some levels.

CC: Well I think on the one hand, I feel like it's a film that you can come into with your pre-conceived notions and you can believe that the film was made for you, whichever side you're on. But I think that with the characters, it was trying to embody who they are and be empathetic on both sides of the issue but also lead you through this maze of what's going on. Kind of the same journey we took. In constructing the narrative we thought about those same types of things, which is how do you bring it to one side and then quickly bring it back to the other?

SS: We called it “the mindfuck”. In the editing room it was, "How do we mess with you in a way that makes sense? Not just to mess with you because it is confusing." We gave voice to those that believe in putting value on an animal, from different walks of life, from the hunter to the breeder. I think the one character that we didn't expect is Chris, the anti-poacher redhead guy. He was the one person we met that was having this fight with himself on camera.

SS: Yeah, he was really amazing. He was a find along the way. He wasn't in the plan.

CC: Initially he brought us into the villages with the locals. We wanted to look at the villages and the trickledown effect of how [the hunting] helps them and how it's a matter human and wildlife conflict. He brought us into that world, and then we went into the anti-poaching world through him, which is incredibly complicated. A lot of the people that he is working with in the villages are people that could potentially be poachers, simply because of the nature of where they are and the only resource they have is animals.

SS: That’s what was really interesting about his approach. The reason that he gets to some degree behind the hunting is he kept promoting to the locals ownership, and ownership meant "this is your treasure". So now how are you going to handle your treasure? Are you going to let a couple of people just steal everything and control the money? Or are you going to give them to us and tell us who they are and let us hunt them down, or go after them because we own this together? This is how we're going to treat this commodity.

I think what you really quickly understand across the board is if you don't give local Africans any interest to protect it, they're not going to look at it like we do sitting back here in Utah or in New York City. "Oh, we should save the lions, it's so bad!" Well, lions eat these people’s children. Elephants trample their crops, it's a terrible thing and they're a ton of meat. So why not poach that sucker for meat? The second you land there it makes so much more sense, and we're getting it wrong if we think we can [easily] fix things.

Without the locals we're not going to win any fight, no matter what.

CC: And I think it's utopian to think, from our mindset, that if you just leave the animals alone, if you just preserve them, that they will just exist forever. Human encroachment, corruption, all these things outside of hunting and poaching are also making the animals decline.

And the worst part is that this reality is not reflected by many who feel they are part of the solution. What some are doing is trying to put a glass bubble over a culture as much as they are over the animals.

SS: And that's very feel-good, just like the movies. It’s very much the model of Born Free because that's who we engaged with. The idea of [much] wildlife protecting is "Let's get money so we can do anti-poaching, so we can do this." But in many cases they don't have a real solution. [Some of] these people are against breeding and to me that's a little harsh.

On the other hand you have a character in your film who believes it's his right literally by God to shoot whatever he wants.

CC: Yeah. He does.

SS: He's not the only hunter who [believes] the God thing. Hunters have to be controlled because we have seen them overhunt species to death, to extinction. They claim they're the solution because of the money. It's believed that it's a two billion dollar a year operation to protect wildlife in Africa. Well they bring between one and two percent. So they're not living up to that. Tourism brings five to eight percent.

CC: But only in specific areas.

SS: Again, here's why this is so complex. There's only a couple of national parks that the tourists love going to because if we were going, you want to go to the best place where you'll see the most animals. That's not your fault. You're not going to Zambezi valley, where it's a country that's expensive, that has a dictator. Nobody is going to go there.

And you're not going to have a relaxing bath after your safari in the Savannah in a war zone.

CC: No, there's no infrastructure to support those systems. That's not the reality for everything, for Western minds to come and say, "Let's do eco-tourism!" Well, great, but it doesn't work everywhere.

SS: That's why the solution needs all of these parts. Eco-tourism is super important, I'll be the first one to say that if you go and see these animals, you're helping conserve. But we can't lose one for the other if we stand a chance. These two religions [hunting vs eco-tourists] just want a battle to win.

Your film shows there has to be a conversation, not a binary divide, and even more importantly provides the very grounds for that conversation.

SS: We hope. That's a big hope. We're quickly organizing to have more dialogue. So we want to do a release where we could have pro and anti-hunting sit together at a debate. To do that with organizations such as National Geographic, with CNN, to have Craig Packer from the movie who's a really middle ground kind of guy. Part of our goal, beyond a getting release for our film, is to actually create dialogue.

Were there particular touchstones that you really held onto to maintain this kind of intellectual sophistication?

CC: I did. Narco Cultura.

SS: That's my film! [Laughs]

CC: He did the same thing there-he brought in these two worlds that were quite polarizing and no one knew anything about, and brought you through these two places. Trophy is much similar to that in how we approach it. Craig Packer's book Into Africa was also a huge inspiration to push us to look at this differently. He's a lion researcher; he's been in the Serengeti for 40 years doing research. But he combats both sides. He looks at hunting, he looks at conservation, he looks at ecology, all of these things.

SS: This is a guy who got kicked out of Tanzania for exposing hunting's corruption. They literally took over his house. Then this dude comes out and says, "We have to be really careful. Sometimes it's wrong-I expose where it's wrong-we can't cancel [hunting]." To go above ego and say "This is complicated.”

The film is raw but still manages to look beautiful.

SS: We're only shooting our own material and coming from a long career in photojournalism. We talked about how we're going to make it beautiful but also how we're going to force you to stare at death, and where is the limit? So when we shot the [death of an] elephant scene, it was super hard. Part of it was just the tools that suddenly documentary filmmakers can have. We wanted to use the drone not just for beauty shots but as part of scenes. I think the elephant shot did well to prove that.

Was there a moment that you knew you needed to get a shot and you also needed to charge your stuff?

CC: Yes, actually there was. When we spent time with Chris and we went out to, they did a village raid. We didn't expect to be on the road for 24 hours.

SS: We didn't know those raids happened back to back.

CC: So we ran out of gear. We ran out of batteries, we ran out of cards. One camera was down. We walked in and we forgot batteries so we were trying to navigate by thinking let's just really focus and shoot one camera at a certain period of time.

It’s almost like you were back to shooting on film!

SS: That turned into a series of 36 hour raids, which ran us to a point where there was great stuff but we couldn’t shoot right away

CC: This is what we need and this is what we don't need. Let's not shoot for 20 minutes [straight].

Now that you’ve played it to an audience, did it work the way you expected it to?

CC: I came in thinking it was going to be a hit or a miss. People are going to walk out, be upset, not be interested in the conversation or be really engaged. We got lucky. People are engaged. Our aim, at the end of the day, was that you come in with these ideas and attitudes and you leave questioning them. You leave starting a conversation. I think the questions from the audience have been really great, people are grappling with them. They're curious, they're interested.

SS: I feel like it's a homerun. We were a little worried because there was a point towards the end that we [wondered] if we should we tone it down a little bit. People are more sensitive to animals dying than human people dying, which is fucked up. Sorry, it is.

We really decided to really stick to the plan, and I really give a lot of credit to Impact Partners as our main investors. They came in on a very different film and they became such a supporter of letting it be raw and not an easy, digestible film.

Hunters who come to the movie were so ready to be bashed and they were on the defense. Then they saw the movie and they understand that they're not being cheaply thrown under the bus. Some were saying, "Maybe a lion in a cage is actually wrong and maybe we should fight the right battles”, which we hadn’t heard before. They're very protective.