'Safari': Venice Review

Safari - Still 2 - H - 2016
Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
Another grim object lesson about human nature.

Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl goes on vacation in Africa.

What is more grotesque than paying large sums of money to kill beautiful wild animals? The answer is possibly seeing an African safari through the eyes of radical Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl, who has earned a strong festival following with films like his Paradise trilogy, showing how evil rhymes with human absurdity. Safari is a relatively simple, straightforward and presumably unstaged documentary, but it leaves the audience deeply shaken. It should be a popular entry at fall festivals and wander into receptive art houses.

Seidl calls the film “a vacation movie about killing,” which about sums up his condemnation of hunting as part of humans’ reckless exploitation of nature. It opens on the humorous image of a lone bugler sounding a hunting call in front of a wall of pine trees. Somewhere in Africa, the walls of a hunting lodge frequented by German and Austrian tourist hunters are plastered with trophies — the heads of magnificent wild animals. The prey, or “piece” as it is called in jargon, is first purchased at a fixed price, then bagged by the buyer. The avid hunters include the elegant Eva and her husband, their 20-year-old son and daughter, and an elderly couple who sunbathe behind the lodge and doze in the blind. It seems like a relaxing middle-class sport that almost anyone can afford. They run no danger hunting, and they describe how it gives them a tremendous emotional rush to pull the trigger and bring down a large animal.

Seidl and his cameraman Wolfgang Thaler stealthily and invisibly follow the holiday hunters and their guides through the savanna as they stalk and kill first a gnu, then a zebra and finally — in what is going to be the final straw for many viewers — an enormous giraffe found wandering around the savanna with his mate. The giraffe doesn’t die quickly. After each kill, they congratulate each other on their clean shot with the “hunter’s salute” and “hunter’s thanks” and take a picture in front of the dead creature. Then their guides haul it away. The final chapter unfolds in the skinning room behind the lodge, where local African workers use sharp knives to peel the precious skin off the animal’s head and body, spill its guts and hack off its legs while they slip and slide in its blood. To watch all this is simply revolting.  

In a few telling images, Seidl pulverizes all the rationalizations — that hunting is an ancient sport, that it keeps down overpopulation, that it’s good for the local economy, that almost everyone eats meat. When the elderly couple exchange knowledgeable opinions on the merits of “eland tenderloin,” an animal they are contemplating buying and killing, it brings home the madness of the hunt.

To be honest, the only people eating anything in the film are the poor Africans, who are filmed joylessly gnawing on some bones. They are almost as invisible as the filmmakers, though at one point the lodge owner and his wife concede that “the blacks” can run faster than whites because they have longer leg muscles and heel bones — a comment that rings with condescension and barely veiled racism.

Venue: Venice Film Festival
Production companies: Ulrich Seidl Film 
Production in association with Arte, G.E.I.E,, Danish Documentary, WDR
Director-producer: Ulrich Seidl
Co-producer: Sigrid Jonsson Dyekjaer
Screenwriters/concept: Ulrich Seidl, Veronika Franz
Director of photography: Wolfgang Thaler
Editor: Christof Schertenlieb
World sales: Coproduction Office   

Not rated, 90 minutes