Trophy doesn’t necessarily say all that much that’s new about the complicated relationship between hunting and conservation of southern Africa’s wild animals, but what it says it says beautifully. 

“Let me put my beer down,” says one hunting enthusiast in southern Africa as he waits for locals to wrestle his enormous crocodile into position so he can shoot it in the head. “Oh yeah, motherfucker,” he says, when he’s finally got it. That, in a nutshell, sums up the attitude of America’s game hunters towards the wild African animals they seek to kill for bags, shoes, decorative wall hangings and, above all, trophies.

From directors Shaul Schwar and Christina Clusiau, Trophy explores the complicated relationship between conservation and the profitable hunting industry in the south of the African continent. It concentrates largely on the ambitions of Philip Glass, a Texan big game hunter looking to kill one of each of the Big Five; African lion, rhinoceros, Cape buffalo, African elephant and the African leopard. “Let’s add that bitch to the list,” is the kind of removed statement that summarises the sheep farmer’s attitudes towards the animals he’s plotting to kill for sport.

Between the meat market of the Las Vegas hunting conference where a pop at a rhino sells for £350,000, and the plains of Namibia and South Africa, the landscape couldn’t be more stark. It’s here where Schwar and Clusiau really succeed; in the imagery. From shots of a crying young rhino after the death of its mother at the hands of poachers to a stunning shot of arguably Africa’s most beguiling creature, the elephant, lying dead amongst the landscape.

But there are more lions in the wild now than there were decades ago, you cry. You would be right, but as depressing to watch as Trophy is, it reminds us that there’s only more of them because they’re being bred for murder.

Plumped with depressing facts, Trophy comprehensively covers the tricky balance some local animal activists are trying to strike. With the ‘if it pays, it stays’ approach governing the market, rhino breeder John Hume is followed as he successfully takes on the government to end the moratorium on the sale of rhino horns as a way of preserving the species, rather than allowing poachers to kill off the population in order to sustain their livelihoods. After all, rhino horn is more expensive than gold or heroin on the black market.

As a film, Trophy hasn’t the traditional narrative structure of this year’s other hit documentaries (see Step, Quest and Blurred Lines), instead weaving in and out of stories without building to any dramatic climax. We hear equally from anti-hunting activists, hunting enthusiasts, charging those who think animals are anything other than food with infantile views, those who enable their hobbies, and local people.

It’s the voices of those local people which adds another intriguing layer to the film, as it explores their very different attitudes to the animals that populate their local landscape. Reliant on the animals around them for sustenance, locals are forced to turn to poaching should their farm animals be gobbled up by one of the lions bred for one purpose only, to be hunted.

Trophy doesn’t say a lot that will surprise those who make the choice to see the film, since die-hard enthusiasts of the ‘sport’ will likely shy away from screenings, but what it does say it says beautifully. If the purpose of the film was to convince those who fall somewhere in the middle, it will surely achieve its goal of fostering a lively debate about the commodification of wild animals, and reminding its audiences that Cecil the lion wasn’t the only victim.

Trophy is released on 17 November. Find out more here.

★★★★☆

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