Quest of Ire


Fun fact: there are two kinds of primed lions in South Africa. Primed for what? Primed to be hunted.

"Canned" lions are bred for it and regulated by the state. "Wild" lions are, well, wild. They live free in the plains. The hunts for them are popular because they promise adventure, illicit thrills, and validation. These are run by essentially outlaw outfits. Guides are free agents and unsanctioned. These wild hunts are highly profitable, the first link in a chain of exploiters that includes everyone from taxidermists to international financiers.

These are the guys Rogue Rubin is after.

Rogue ( Joni) Rubin is a South African photographer who specializes in big game in its natural habitat. She's attractive, spirited, and on a crusade: to end the extinction-in-progress of wild African lions. Lion Spy is her stirring documentary about that issue.

She's also the "spy" of the title. Ms. Rubin knows that powerful forces—shadowy individuals and corporations—are at work here. There’s big money to be made, and they would be unhappy with her attempts to stop it. So she's taken on a fake identity and gone undercover, posing as a "trophy intern," an assistant, and a general gofer on these safaris. She uses small, covert cameras to record what transpires.

Most trophy hunters are white, male, rich, and living the fantasy of the bold adventurer triumphing over the savage predator. Back home, the mounted head of a lion or other feral beast is a great story and a display of cojones. These are the clients wild lion guides cater to. The reality isn't quite as risky: the guides who take them out are heavily armed and poised to take over in case the client is a poor shot, or the quarry turns on them.

But that's rarely the case. For the most part, according to the film, wild lions are docile in their home environment and avoid contact with humans. These outings are a setup: the guides spot a lion, pursue it, and just when it relaxes, the client shoots it from a safe distance. The animal doesn't stand a chance. This practice enrages Ms. Rubin. "This wasn't a chase," she hisses into her hidden camera. "This was an execution."

And it's not limited to lions. Unassuming antelopes and zebras are felled by long-range rifles while strolling or foraging. When a majestic giraffe goes down, the hunters gloat over it, and a guide casually remarks that the gigantic animal's hide will make a great rug, running right up the client's stairs.

Ms. Rubin casts a wide net in Lion Spy. Besides the in-country episodes, she infiltrates a PHASA conference (the Professional Hunting Association of South Africa), where one speaker warns that "public opinion will kill this business." At a convention in Las Vegas, we get an animal-by-animal kill price list (getting a hippo will cost you the most).

One of Lion Spy's more jaw-dropping episodes concerns a father and daughter duo. Dad has returned to Africa and the site of his "triumph" over the wild lion—the carcass now mounted and displayed proudly in his home--this time with his teenage daughter in tow. "It's her turn," he explains. The girl is eager and has a good shot and gets hers right away. Wait, will they see this on Instagram?

As film art, Lion Spy is competent. It documents what many of us may never experience, a safari, using the techniques of modern documentaries: testimonials, rapid-fire editing, and a rousing soundtrack worthy of an action film.

As propaganda, Lion Spy is more effective, especially when tracing the path of money generated by the trade (its sponsors may surprise you). Ms. Rubin has a lot of footage to work with, from her hidden cameras and those used by hunters themselves to immortalize the event.

The "spy" part is gimmicky as a framing device. Ms. Rubin wants Lion Spy to be seen as a "thriller," but it's a pointed one: she prods opinions for sound bites (like the daughter-hunter who sees a lion cub and says she "wants one." Who wouldn't, until it's grown up? Yet Ms. Rubin uses the remark as evidence of the girl's insensitivity).

Lion Spy isn't made to play in theaters but on flatscreens at fundraisers. Of course, the jig is up once audiences (and her subjects) see the film and its true agenda is revealed. But in the final account, the movie works because it's persuasive, and Rogue Rubin is so passionate about preserving the lions.

After all, as Debby Thomson of Bushveld Connections, one of Ms. Rubin's supporters, says in the film, "What is Africa without wild animals?"

Lion Spy. Directed by Joni “Rogue” Rubin. 2021. On digital platforms. 76 minutes.

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