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Review: The documentary ‘Trophy’ asks tough questions about big-game hunting and conservation

John Hume in the documentary "Trophy."
(Shaul Schwarz / Sundance Institute)

The documentary “Trophy,” which shadows the worlds of big-game hunting and conservation, should come with two warnings. One, the movie is unflinching about showing creatures being killed and/or slaughtered — whether happened upon or filmed in the act. It’s not for the squeamish. But also, it may complicate your viewpoints about saving animals from extinction and killing them for sport, which, as laid out in director Shaul Schwarz and co-director Christina Clusiau’s alternately alarming and frustrating film, are intertwined in ways that defy cut-and-dried solutions.

The calculus pushed by John Hume, whose rhino-breeding operation is the world’s largest, says that if you ban the rhino horn trade — he’s got tons of sheared horn stockpiled worth millions — you drive up poaching. (Over the past 100 years, the rhino population has dropped from 500,000 to under 30,000.)

For the controversial Hume and his ilk, like Christo Gomes, who runs a high-end game-breeding, safari and hunting operation, anybody making money from the controlled tracking and killing of a majestic beast — the “big five” are buffalo, leopards, elephants, lions and rhinos — is ensuring it won’t be wiped out and protecting its natural habitat. And yet a lion bred and bid upon to be released into a privately owned area for the trigger-happy pleasure of wealthy trophy seekers doesn’t exactly sound like a roaming wild animal in any true sense of the term.

With lines drawn along politics, class, race and economics, the strange-bedfellows issue of top-dollar killing and queasy conservation is one that “Trophy,” which breathlessly pings from anti-poaching efforts in Zimbabwe to breeding enclosures in southern Africa to a glitzy Las Vegas hunters’ convention, lays bare with gruesome, grim exactitude.

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‘Trophy’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica

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