Film Review: Lion Spy

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Writer and Director: Rogue Rubin

Confrontational from the start, documentary Lion Spy examines the wildlife hunting industry. Film-maker and photographer Rogue Rubin hits us early with shocking statistics. The wild lion population is around 20,000, and threatened with extinction. Since 2000, there has been an 85% decline in numbers.

Lion Spy’s intention is to find out what is happening. Rubin discovers a rise in the popularity of trophy hunting trips, held in Africa. The preserve of the ultra-rich, Rubin recognises that getting access to these people will require going undercover. She cleverly creates an alias, presenting herself as a trophy photographer, with a fake ID and social media profiles. Rubin’s entry into the hunting world is initially slow, but she gains the trust of Pete, a local hunter, and is invited onto his hunting trips.

Rubin – under the guise of taking trophy photographs – captures footage that is graphic and deeply distressing. Wildlife are hunted en masse – the clients often have a ghoulish hit list of animals they want to kill. The clients not only get their adrenaline fix, the carcass is prepared and imported back home. The experience doesn’t come cheap: to shoot a lion costs $64,000.

The impact of Rubin’s footage, and the interviews (undercover and post-investigation), is extraordinary. Rubin does not have to reach for the big reveals as they are built into the material she uncovers. Going deeper, she examines the desire to hunt.

The psychological analysis of the hunters doesn’t take long. With a majority of clients coming from Spain and the United States, Rubin discovers they are not seasoned hunters; many can barely hold a gun. These are wealthy individuals who see trophy hunting as a rite of passage. Rubin illustrates the bizarreness of these rituals. Joining clients for a pre-hunt breakfast, she interviews the chef whose speciality is zebra lasagna.

In a fascinating postscript, Rubin arranges an interview with Pete, confronting him with facts, figures. The probability that in five years, wild lions will be extinct. He refuses to accept the evidence and walks out. The arguments from the hunting industry – that they are performing some kind of conservation service, that the millions generated goes back into the local economy – are dismantled. Rubin also traces political connections to hunting, and influence goes right to the top. President Obama’s import ban is swiftly reneged by the Trump administration. By all accounts, Donald Trump Jnr is a fan of wildlife hunting.

Rubin is a passionate advocate for animal rights, but her documentary maintains editorial balance. Wildlife documentaries often engage us on an emotional level, but Rubin’s connecting lines of influence to the heart of political power is a real eye-opener. Even the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) is partly funded by corporations such as Shell.

The audacity of the hunting industry is truly shocking, and in a film that details the callous execution of wildlife, as if it were a game. Rubin’s mission is not only laudable, it will be fundamental if the species is to be saved.

Lion Spy will be available to own and rent on iTunesApple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Google Play and other platforms from 1st August, via The Movie Partnership.

The Reviews Hub Score:

Powerful and persuasive

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The Reviews Hub - Film

The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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