One of the programs in the Los Cabos International Film Festival was called “Green,” described in the festival catalogue as a group of “well-crafted films which encourage us to reflect on our responsibility as inhabitants of a shared planet.” Should a warning have been added that several of these well-meaning films can cause visceral reactions of extreme discomfort in the audience?
Safari (Austria, 2016), the longest of Ulrich Seidl’s recent films (Import/Export, 2007, the Paradise/trilogy, 2012/2012/2013, In the basement, 2014), presents, without voice over, without editorializing, without emphasizing the horror of what we are witnessing, a group of Austrian hunters shooting animals for the sport in an unnamed African country. As is usual in Seidl’s documentary cinema, static interior shots of staring people, placed in some sort of anachronist tableau, are alternated with exterior- set action scenes. Seidl’s gallery of hunters -men, women, old, young, middle aged- rationalize their love of killing animals in the wild. They talk about the nature of death, of how hunting eliminates sick animals, and of how the money they expend helps the development of African countries. One of them insists that they are not doing anything wrong or unlawful, and that they have nothing to apologize for.
Seidl takes his viewers along on the hunt. We see up close how the hunters track and kill animals. We are witness to their emotions, their excitement and happiness bringing an animal down; and we see them proudly posing for photographs afterward, leaning with a rifle over the dead body. Seidl’s own camera watches objectively, as if this is nothing out of the world, despite our utmost rejection of what we see. And when the hunted prey is a particularily sympathetic animal? I confess that it’s been a long time since I last felt the need to vomit from watching a film. For the record, I mention this as praise.
On the other hand, Rats (USA, 2016), from Supersize Me filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, “a horror documentary” -those were the words used by the young woman presenting the film-, is an entertaining vision of the global threat that rats represent. At least in some countries. When Spurlock moves from one society to the next, or from one continent to another -from America to Asia, from Great Britain to Vietnam or India-, we can see that the rodents are not perceived the same way everywhere.
In New York City, a charismatic exterminator warns us of the impossibility of eliminating these animals. Elsewhere in the United States and Great Britain, we see how scientists seriously study these rodents to understand how they transmit a never-ending list of diseases. In Vietnam, however, rats make for delicious meals. They are cooked and consumed in different gourmet ways, often accompanied by a beer. In some Hindu temples in India, rats are considered sacred. People live with them, eat from the same plate, drink the same milk and share the same diced fruit.
As a documentarian, Spurlock is an unapologetic sensationalist. He alternates serious scenes showing the work of American or British scientists (an impressive autopsy of a rat, for example) with sequences which do not add much knowledge yet are both horrifying and very funny. In some field of England, we witness over twenty terrier dogs decimate an entire colony of rats, while their complacent owners stand by watching.
Honestly, I didn’t know that those funny-looking dogs could be such relentless rat hunters. For a moment, I felt sorry for the chewed-up rodents. Only for a moment.
Edited by Gerald M. Peary
© FIPRESCI 2016