The long-term project of directing duo Tomer Almagor and Nadav Harel, King of Beasts, provides a unique and illuminating peek into the “sport” of lion hunting in Africa.
Much like the innocent buffalo and hippo hanging grimly from the trees, the prospect to display his machismo to the world provides sufficient bait for their subject, allowing for an in-depth documentary that gives the viewer full access to his week-long expedition to add another lion to his trophy collection.
The documentary follows a trio of white men: Aaron Neilson – the pack leader and main benefactor of the trip; Dean Kendall – a professional hunter who lives in the area; and a third, unnamed, younger man whose sole purpose appears to be to reaffirm Neilson’s masculinity. The directors make the wise decision to stay behind the camera, allowing their subjects to lead the discussions. They make the argument that the sport of lion hunting is saving Tanzanian wildlife from the local population, as it is their American dollars that are being put towards conservation and anti-poaching efforts. While it may be true that their money is being put towards such things, their apparent care for African wildlife (Neilson even appears close to tears when discussing the subject in his local gym) was hard to believe. One telling scene towards the end of the documentary involved Kendall stressing the importance of being “respectful to the animals” while the locals picked up all their leftover rubbish and the younger man engaged in a failed attempt to get a picture carrying the dead lion on his shoulders.
The camera work is impressive and unobtrusive, and while there is arguably a lack of narrative structure, it works well in the context of this documentary, allowing the viewer to piece together how the whole expedition works for themselves. While the view of the directors is relatively clear from the start (our first introduction to Neilson sees him listening to an anti-global warming Trump rant on the radio) it isn’t forced down our throats but rather delicately presented, with the reality of the situation becoming increasingly explicit as the expedition reaches its inevitable conclusion.
Unlike the #documentary African Hunting Holiday a few years ago, where Louis Theroux explored the world of so-called “canned safaris”, where animals (including lions) are bred in reserves specifically to be hunted by wealthy Americans, the hunt in King of Beasts takes place in the wild.
However, the whole expedition is just as manufactured – Neilson and co. are waited on and driven around, shooting stationary animals and taking pictures while the Tanzanian locals toil in the background to prepare the bait and entice the ultimate prize.
Some of the most uncomfortable viewing wasn’t even the hunting itself, but the evening discussions on the “situation” in Africa. The three men almost describe themselves as white saviours, coming to rescue a “confused” Tanzania from its own self-destruction. Their unwavering self-belief was shocking to see – it’s concerning that the lengths taken by the directors to provide such an unbiased view will only serve as further encouragement to those who agree with such views. Nevertheless, King of Beasts goes about its business with precision and intelligence, resulting in a depressing, yet important, piece of #filmmaking.