FILM REVIEW: Safari
DIRECTOR: Ulrich Seidl
Review by Hubert Lawrence Yeo.
Screened as part of the Singapore Writers Festival 2017 in collaboration with Anticipate Pictures, this was my first time watching a documentary made by the Austrian film director, Ulrich Seidl. If you expect to be pleasantly entertained, be forewarned – Safari will capture, disturb and provoke thought about the ethicality of hunting animals as trophies for display and commercialisation.
Seidl begins with his camera focused on a shed located in the middle of a bush, and it holds its position for a good minute or two before the tranquillity of the scene is abruptly pierced by the thunderous sound of rifle shot. This motif will appear constantly throughout the film, and it undercuts the attempts by the tourist hunters to humanise the act of killing animals for sport and profit-making. This first bullet fired in the film was also particularly interesting because it seemed as if it were aimed in the direction of the camera – perhaps Seidl was attempting to make an early statement about empathising with the many animals we will soon witness shot dead and defiled for money and pride.
The course of the documentary alternates between interviews with a family – the main protagonists of the film – about hunting, and footage of them in action. Indeed, one aspect which perplexed me the most is the opinion expressed by the family that hunting enables deliverance for the animals, as they could be suffering from illness or physical injury. This bid to moralise hunting as sport naturally begs a plethora of questions: How do you verify that the animals are in pain? Do animals have emotions? Can animals feel? Do animals have agency, and does it affect whether or not we can kill them indiscriminately?
There are many opportunities for the audience to contemplate the above questions as certain scenes are either static or continue for long periods of time. For example, after successfully hunting an animal, the hunter, with the help of a few others, would position the ‘prize’ nicely and take a photo with it. Seidl ensures that his camera places this scene centre stage for an inordinate amount of time, and we are forced to grapple with the selfishness of such actions. This is usually followed by scenes of workers skinning the animal and severing (rather gruesomely) its head and joints for another inordinate period of time – I would argue that by doing so, the audience is compelled to feel complicit in the said actions of those on screen.
What strikes me as being particularly ironic is the contrast between the beauty of the bush and the senseless murdering of animals – some of which the hunters even acknowledge as being endangered – for the purposes of ‘game’ or ‘deliverance’ or ‘pride.’ I think this film speaks of a larger overarching theme of our duty, as members of the natural environment, to protect it and other inhabitants who share it with us. This message is reinforced during footage of interviews with various members of the family: Seidl usually ensures that the heads of animals killed hang in the background, as if to further enhance the irony as the hunters speak of their adventures, making stark his critique of their actions.
I am rather puzzled, however, by the interview with the white couple who discussed not having any problems with people of colour in the country, as well as the end of the documentary, where references to the ephemeral nature of life were made by the owner of the safari in what seemed like an attempt to justify hunting. All these seemed rather throwaway to me, lacking focus and intention to bring together the themes touched upon in the documentary.
With that being said, Safari still serves as a powerful documentary which challenges and compels all viewers to meditate upon questions which have too often been swept under the carpet: is the killing of animals for sport justified? Do animals have agency? What are some socio-economic consequences this engenders, and is there a need to do something? This documentary certainly provides no easy answers, and will in fact leave you with much food for thought at its end.
ABOUT THE WRITER
“Our one goal is to give the world a taste of peace, friendship, and understanding through the visual arts, the art of celebration of life.”
– Steven Spielberg