“You’re always told not to get into a car with strangers,” Rogue Rubin laughs over the line to FilmInk. “Well, I was getting into a car with a stranger with a loaded gun.”
Though now safe at home in Australia, South African-born filmmaker, photographer and conservationist Rogue Rubin still bears a few emotional scars from what has been an extraordinarily brave and potentially dangerous personal odyssey. On a mission to raise awareness for lion conservation in Africa, Rubin wanted to learn about those contributing to the disappearance of this famously majestic beast. “My initial plan was to make a film about the conservation of lions in Africa, but things kind of went sideways from there,” Rubin explains.
Wanting to go deep into all sides of the argument, Rubin set up a fake identity for herself as a pro-hunting photographer and went undercover with professional South African big game hunter, Pieter Kriel, a seventeen-year veteran in the field who brings international amateurs into the country and takes them into the bush on trigger-pulling safaris. In the deep African bush, they take down lions and other animals under his tutelage. Surreptitiously filming hunting expeditions and interviewing the hunt organisers and their customers, the resulting documentary, Lion Spy, is a taut and truly eye-opening documentary.
Embedded with trophy hunters for months, Rogue Rubin found herself immersed in a strange world of highly controlled man-on-animal violence. “I was constantly getting into cars with strangers going to places with names that I couldn’t pronounce,” Rubin says of her experience of near constant endangerment. “I would be an idiot not to be extremely fearful. Not even as a filmmaker, but just as a single woman alone in a country, on the most simplistic level…to not be concerned would be irrational. I’m still scared, even today.”
Even with the film finished, and set for release in Australia, Rubin pauses on a nearly daily basis about whether or not to push forward with it. Trophy hunters and gun enthusiasts are a large, powerful and sometime frighteningly aggressive group in America, and though Lion Spy isn’t set to open there until next year, Rubin is nervous. “I’m constantly asking myself whether I’ve lost my god damn mind,” she says frankly. “But I’m a passionate conservationist and I’m a passionate filmmaker, and I believe that films are the best way to educate and the best way to force change. But this type of thing comes from both sides. When I was working under an alias with the trophy hunters, I was getting death threats from conservationists. There are extremists on both sides, and whenever you’re dealing with extremists – no matter on what subject, or what country you’re in – then you need to be concerned. By the way, death threats – from either side – are not the answer! We need to put that in big letters! No death threats!”
This sense of constant tension – the same kind achieved in undercover cop films like Donnie Brasco or State Of Grace – gives Lion Spy an indelible sense of forward momentum, as the audience constantly fears that Rubin’s fake alias will crumble, leaving the filmmaker dangerously exposed. “Some people have said that the film feels dramatised,” Rubin laughs, “but I’d actually say that it’s under dramatised! There was so much stuff that I couldn’t film because it would have been suspicious. There were conversations that I couldn’t shoot, and I couldn’t film myself going, ‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!’ in terror…sorry! There were some mind blowing things that happened and things that people said to me that I couldn’t shoot, and that now just exists in my mind.”
And like the protagonists in films like Donnie Brasco and State Of Grace, Rubin found herself developing empathy for and forming friendships with those whom she was embedded with. “You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t,” Rubin says simply. “When I was developing my alias, I did a lot of research into people who work undercover, and that happens all the time. You can’t be an authentic human and not form relationships with people. I believe that I was authentically myself during this process. Friendships absolutely developed. I hope that this film is a psychological exploration into people on both sides of the argument…you always have to look at both sides of an argument. I don’t believe in killing for pleasure, but I understand that other people have a different view on that. People are brought up in different ways and they have such different life experiences…trying to understand that probably represented my steepest learning curve on the film.”
Not surprisingly, Lion Spy is hitting audiences hard, with its no holds barred scenes of trophy hunters at work, and the often strange reasoning that they provide for their actions. “People are coming away with really emotive responses to the film,” Rubin offers. “But I really want to put that back on the audiences…that’s their response. I feel that we just showed what happened. I just give you the facts and I show you what happened to me. I wasn’t trying to slant the audience in terms of what to think. When I was filming it, I didn’t feel slanted one way or the other. I just felt, ‘This is what’s happening and I’m going to show you.’”
Within the world of hunting, Rubin found a whole strata of different views, with trophy hunters – those who use high powered weapons to kill animals like lions and then document the kill in various ways – disavowed by other groups of hunters. The practice of “canned hunting” (where lions are literally bred to be killed by hunters) is also highly controversial. “There are hunters who are wholly against trophy hunting,” Rubin explains. “They believe that you should eat all of the meat that the animal offers, and that you shouldn’t be able to shoot an animal from a truck, like many of the trophy hunters do, and that you shouldn’t be able to use lights, because that stuns the animal. There are so many very, very different views within the wider hunting community. Within the film, the question is raised as to whether trophy hunting is actually still a sport. There is certainly an argument against that. There are so many debates within the hunting community on issues of ethics and morality. I just wanted to put the facts before the audience.”
And if you think that trophy hunting is only popular in the trigger happy US of A, then think again: Australia has a community of trophy hunters too. “Absolutely we do,” Rubin says. “There are trophy hunters in every country. The Australian cricketer Glenn McGrath infamously went trophy hunting a few years back, though he did make a formal apology. I’m not sure that the elephant heard it though, because it was dead! We have trophy hunters in Australia, and if people think we don’t, they’d be wrong. Australia is, however, the only country that has completely banned the importation of lion trophies, parts and products, which I always love to put on a pedestal. We also have a great economist called Cameron Murray who has written extensively about the fact that trophy hunting does not financially benefit the conservation of lions, as many trophy hunters try to claim. He writes solely from an economic perspective, and he doesn’t even see himself as a conservationist. So we definitely have people on both sides of the argument here in Australia. We’re not doing great with some areas of conservation, but Australia is achieving great things with regards to lions though, and I just really want to get that out there!”