One of the more welcome developments of recent years in independent films and documentaries has been the swing away from rough, handheld aesthetics -- which dominated the early 2000s -- toward a more elegant, cinematically sophisticated approach. The verite style is usually coded as authentic and immediate, but it can be just as deliberate, or as "phony," as a static shot or a carefully organized dolly. Especially in the realm of nonfiction, more purposeful, composed filmmaking has foregrounded issues of authorship, authenticity and voyeurism. Take Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau's Trophy -- a documentary that is simultaneously gorgeous and unwatchable. Its very form embodies the film's central, and very controversial, conflict.
Trophy looks at the people who breed and preserve endangered wild animals and then allow those creatures to be hunted or harvested. Their argument -- that by raising these animals in protected environments, they are saving them from extinction -- is an old one, an offshoot of the notion that hunters were the first conservationists. Big-game hunting helps pay for the farms, puts money back into local communities and channels hunting activity toward regulated businesses, instead of leaving these animals to the mercy of indiscriminate poachers.
Schwarz and Clusiau allow these people to voice their views but never flinch from showing us the animals being killed. The interviews say one thing, the nauseating visuals say another. And, as if to add to the discomfort, the filmmakers have also made this footage technically lovely: The camera moves with purpose and grace, and the lighting is always just right. By making the horror beautiful, they dare us to watch.