'King of Beasts': Film Review

Courtesy of Oldenburg International Film Festival
Unblinking look at a roar deal.

Tomer Almagor and Nadav Harel's wildlife-themed documentary world-premiered at the Oldenburg International Film Festival in northern Germany.

Oscar Wilde pithily dissed fox-hunting as "the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable," a withering dismissal which might apply to those 21st century big-game hunters who can be seen grinningly posing with their kills across social media. Seeking to go beyond the outrage such images — particularly those commemorating the killing of famous Zimbabwean lion "Cecil" in 2015 — regularly stoke, Tomer Almagor and Nadav Harel's King of Beasts is a deliberately disturbing documentary portrait of one lion-killer who genuinely believes he's doing the species (and their human neighbors) a big favor.

World-premiering at Oldenburg in northern Germany, this American production is a more mainstream-oriented and conventional affair than Ulrich Seidl's clinical, widely screened Safari (2016), which dealt with similar subject matter. With relative newcomers Almagor and Harel lacking the cachet of Seidl's name, however, this up-close-and-personal immersion in a world many actively avoid experiencing in any way will likely fare best at non-fiction festivals and via small-screen exposure.

The directors are careful to be even-handed in their portrayal of their main protagonist Aaron Neilson, a burly thirtysomething dude with bulging tattooed muscles and what he himself describes as an "A-type personality." Working as a hunting guide in Colorado, Neilson — whose living room she shares with several stuffed big cats, diorama-style — clearly lives for his trips to Tanzania, where he goes after his prey with steely determination and considerable patience.

Indeed, the actual moments of violent death in King of Beasts are few and far between: First to bite the dust is a buffalo, just before the half-hour mark, whose carcass provides dinner for Neilson, his safari companeros and their entourage of paid native servants, and also serves as bait for the crew's bigger targets. A hippo is also slain for the latter purpose, setting us up for the climactic encounter with the king of the jungle, an "old lion" who shows up just after the hour mark, and whom Neilson goes after using the old-school method of bow and arrow.

As well as shedding light on the mechanics of safari hunting — which involves a lot of patience, waiting and downtime — King of Beasts illuminates as an exploration of masculine self-image (Neilson evidently sees himself as heroic and Hemingway-esque) and of how macho hombres engage with each other in close-quarters situations. One of Neilson's party is a greenhorned younger fellow mainly employed to flatteringly record Neilson's exploits for posterity via video in a series of carefully staged tableaux.

The main ethical risk run by the directors is that the simple fact of their having chosen Neilson as their subject will bolster his self-regard and contribute to the way he validates and justifies his own activities. They maintain a fly-on-the-wall neutrality, observing silently as Neilson and his buddies explain what they see as the economic and ecological justifications for actions many would condemn as cruelly repugnant.

A final title-card does adopt an unambiguously negative stance, however (the film is, after, all, "made with the support of the Humane Society of the USA"). Almagor and Harel indict Neilson and his ilk for "exacerbating the problem" by exploiting the relative poverty of economically downtrodden places such as Tanzania that welcome such free-spending foreign visitors with open arms.

Edited by Harel down to a no-nonsense 85 minutes and abounding in sharply telling juxtapositions and transitions, King of Beasts — like the majority of documentaries these days — musically gilds the lily at times. There are moments when Simon Taufique's music threatens the comprehensibility of the dialogue, others where it seeks to amp up the tension of events depicted with counterproductive results. But this is otherwise a work of admirable journalistic seriousness, one that goes about its business with a clear-eyed precision that even Neilson and his chums should grudgingly respect.

Production companies: Creative Monster Productions, Noprocess Films, Pride Games, Urban Tales Productions
Directors: Tomer Almagor, Nadav Harel
Producers: Bryan Gambogi, Gabrielle Almagor, Mark Steele, Tomer Almagor
Cinematographer-editor: Nadav Harel
Composer: Simon Taufique
Venue: Oldenburg International Film Festival
Sales: Gravitas Pictures, El Segundo, California (scott@gravitasventures.com)

In English, Swahili
85 minutes