Written & Directed by Rogue Rubin
There’s something remarkable about the King of the Jungle. For one, you’d never find them in a Jungle. But the Lion, the cultural hegemonic symbol of the animal kingdom depicted in sculpture, art and literature as a persistent and encompassing symbol for centuries finds their existence vulnerable; already sub-species have become fragmented populations.
Infiltrating the world of trophy hunters in an intimate manner, Australian filmmaker and activist Rogue Rubin works undercover as a photographer with African organisations which offer clandestine experiences for the highest bidders, gradually building their trust to experience a live lion hunt, something often claimed to be fictitious and outlawed. Though filmed with a first-hand experience, Lion Spy does make generalisations which, though creeping into problematic areas, enable allowances to connect with the audience faster and make Rubin’s guidance easier.
Peculiar, as what the film does delve into it does without fear of distress and with great detail is how the cinematography rarely cuts from the graphic content – instead instilling the necessity for audiences, and Rubin, to watch and understand the extent to which the slaughter and humiliation of the animals in conducted. For Rubin, it isn’t easy, but undertaking an investigative documentary requires the necessary stomach, and for Rubin, this means getting as close as they can to the hunters and their rich clients. It instils a sense of authenticity within Lion Spy, being able to secure the physical evidence, and makes for intense watching as questions are raised about Rubin’s dedication to trophy hunting.
Gradually, the film progresses into a clearer format – one not providing the answers and alternatives to preserving the populace of Lions, but instead probes into becoming an exposé on the minds and (surface level) psychologies of trophy hunters and their barbaric practice. There is without question a plea from Rubin to the conservation of lions, and other animals of the region, delivering a passionate plea, but Lion Spy is ideally hunting the bigger game.
In a deeply fascinating and tremendously powerful postscript, Rubin arranges an interview with Pete, the key organiser of the trophy hunts, where the film buckles into the fact and figures, and the reality that his business model – and the lions, will be extinct in just five years. It destabilises the argument that the hunting industry is an act of preservation, something that while claimed is never backed with genuine evidence. It’s the clearest and most concise the documentary comes to claiming responsibility, but as Pete walks out, so too does any hope of additional answers.
And while it’s much to ask for concrete answers, an addendum or additional viewpoint of the logistics of conservation and discussions surrounding how to ensure the survival of lions is sorely lacking. Rubin has their eyes fixated on their prey and lets the bigger picture slip somewhat, the missing conversations centring around conservation and preservation prevent Lion Spy from becoming a rounded cinematic experience.
Lion Spy is available to stream on various digital platforms.