Inside the dark world of trophy hunting

Story highlights

  • Ulrich Seidl's documentary "Safari" shines a light on the world of trophy hunting
  • The Austrian director has a knack for finding real characters who are stranger than fiction

(CNN)"Why does a person go on holiday just to shoot an animal? What is the motivation behind it?"

Ulrich Seidl, Austrian director and master of grotesque documentary, still doesn't have a definitive answer to the question he's posed. In fact, he's sure there isn't one.
    Director Ulrich Seidl
    "Safari", his latest film, fixes a stark and unflinching lens on the murky practice of trophy hunting -- a business legal in Namibia, but condemned by many.
    Despite outrage after the killing of Cecil the lion, in Zimbabwe, and Corey Knowlton's high-profile rhino hunt, in Namibia, it's an industry that refuses to die. Hunters, mainly tourists, pay huge fees for a license to shoot big and rare African fauna.
    Every animal comes with a price, and the only barriers are one's coffers and conscience.

    Stranger than fiction

    "Safari" is not the first time Seidl has brought his unique brand of filmmaking to the continent. In 2012, he traced the fates of what he calls "Sugar Mamas" -- European women who seek out younger African boys for sex -- in Kenya in "Paradise: Love".
    You could argue both documentaries deal in meat markets.
    Two young hunters crouch over a dead zebra at the Leopard Lodge, Namibia.
    Seidl has a knack for finding characters too unbelievable to be fiction. Perverse and prosaic, his subjects show that idiosyncrasy is far more common than we realize.
    The guests at the Leopard Lodge in Namibia are no different. From retired couples to young families, these Europeans firmly believe what they are doing is not just acceptable, but right.
    "If hunting takes place in controlled conditions, it's legitimate and viable," argues one German hunter, out to kill a wildebeest. "Especially if, like here, in a developing nation, people get money from it. A hunter spends more in two weeks than a normal tourist in two months."
    Sitting down with tourists at the lodge, Seidl -- a silent presence -- lets his hunters unravel the logic behind their actions and dissect their motives. There is no judgment on the behalf of the director, nor conclusions drawn -- at least on film.
    "I felt like the hunters were always looking for a reason, looking to justify what they're doing," Seidl reveals. If not citing the economic benefits (which some studies claim are overstated), hunters argue animals are old, or have a negative impact on herds.
    Seidl's editing, laced with irony, includes plenty of shots of one overweight hunter snoring, drinking beer and generally appearing to be past his prime. You're left with the impression that if the roles were reversed, this corpulent man might well be considered an ethical target.
    An Austrian father and son (right) stalk their prey in the Namibian bush.
    Death, says one young Austrian, is "a deliverance" for these animals. If the language is biblical, the act is pseudo-sexual.
    "I think there's a tension and suspension before, and then during the shot it's like an orgasm and a sense of relief afterward. It's very much a good comparison," says the director.
    "After the shot I'm so wound up I'm completely drained," says Austrian mother Eva. "My knees and hands shake. I can barely hold my rifle."
    Seidl walks us through the demise of a wildebeest, a zebra and -- perhaps most tragically -- a giraffe. The latter, railing against its impending death, kneels helpless while the rest of the herd watches on. After the giraffe succumbs, it is arranged for a photograph, its killer Gerald barely able to hold up its neck.

    Language barrier

    The director notes the language trophy hunters use to describe the grizzly process, a move he says "create[s] this certain emotional distance between the act of hunting and the animals."
    "Piece" becomes a byword for animal; "sweat" for blood. Blood, Seidl says, is of particular significance: "They remove the blood from the photos so no one can see ... It's an indication for me that blood is very much a taboo in our society."
    After photographs, the body is loaded, large and limp, on to the back of a truck, ready to be skinned and dismembered.
    In perhaps the documentary's most visceral sequences, we watch lodge staff carefully butcher and break these creatures, tiled floors slick with blood and entrails. (Anyone who has seen Brent Stirton's award-winning photo essay "Living with Lions" will know what to expect.) From there it's to the taxidermist, who runs a production line that left even the director taken aback.
    "I have seen huge halls and places where they prepare the trophies, and where they process the trophies. That surprised me, how huge these places were," says the normally unflappable Seidl.

    Beyond judgment?

    "Safari" is a stark and brutal documentary, but one that refuses to condemn its subjects.
    "I didn't have any preconceptions," the director says. "I wouldn't have done the movie if I had any." Yet he admits that hunting isn't "something I'd like to do in the future -- even more so after seeing it done."
    Interestingly, he says his cinema verite approach has found fans on either side of the hunting debate.
    "Both still feel like their point is valid after watching the film. The hunters feel like 'I'm doing the right thing, this is exactly what we should do,' and the people who are against it feel even more so."
    So what about the future of trophy hunting? Is it sustainable? And what influence will "Safari" have?
    Seidl strikes a pragmatic, if pessimistic, note. "[The film] won't have an impact on the industry," he says, "but it will have an impact on people concerned about the abuse of nature."
    "Looking at the bigger picture, we have to ask ourselves where humanity is and where are we standing, and how much more can we abuse nature. I think hunting is just a symbol for a bigger process that's going on.
    "We're digging our own graves, and it's made me think a lot."