In the dry highlands of a Namibian hunting resort, a pot-bellied man wedges a rock underneath the head of a slain wildebeest. “Keep on shooting,” he tells his friend with a grin. “There’s room for five hundred!” Although the man’s comment refers to the storage capacity on his camera, he may as well have been talking about the abounding room for taxidermy in the hunting lodge to which he will soon return. There, amidst hundreds of preserved animal heads, live families whose daily mission is to slay another exotic decoration.
Urlich Seidl’s Safari (2016) is nothing but a wild ride: a masterfully composed portrait of a practice so grotesque, it’s enthralling. The Austrian filmmaker introduces us — with the same investigative lens that one might use to survey animals — to a clan of Austrian tourists who treat animal-slaying like a giddy shopping experience. “A zebra would really interest me,” asserts one man to his father, in what proceeds to be a prosaic comparison of animal attractiveness. “Eland tenderloin is a dream squared,” says another stoically. For something so wild to be purchased with prideful zest is an irony Seidl uncovers throughout the film, as we soon realize that the adrenaline-producing experience the tourists profess hunting to be — through excited whispers and overly technical descriptions of their every move — is actually a guided attraction made possible by complicit locals. In keeping with the larger power structure of colonial oppression, these African men do the dirty work of skinning and butchering the animals after the Austrians pose triumphantly with their slayings.
It’s this perverse performativity, captured first through hand-held shots of the hunting experience, that Seidl subverts through meticulously composed interviews with his subjects. Sitting in pairs on a small loveseat, aligned perfectly in the bottom center of a wide-angle shot, the subjects seem dwarfed by the majestic animal heads that surround them on either side. The distanced vantage and painstaking symmetry, meanwhile, are comically reminiscent of a rifle scope’s perspective. In effect, Seidl turns a critical and dehumanizing gaze toward the very people with the guns. And it’s not surprising why. Some explanations behind their hunting sprees — that killing is a “deliverance” for the animals and “helps them propagate” — are infuriatingly illogical. For instance, the man who proudly accepts nature being “gone” due to “man’s existence” also advocates acting “responsibly toward our environment.”
In what is perhaps a desperate attempt at vengeance, then, Seidl approaches the subjects like animals, too. It’s not malicious as much as it is comical — an artistic statement within the confines of an investigative framework. At one point, Seidl films straight into the binoculars of two hunters; the next shot is of one their wives, pale and overweight, sprawled on a sun-soaked lawn chair. With this cinematic construction of observer and prey, Safari’s ultimate message shines through. The same people who wield guns — professing their dominion over deemed-inferior species — can be reduced to mere bodies, too.