The first thing that comes to mind about Ulrich Seidl’s documentary Safari is that viewing it is about as pleasant as witnessing a live autopsy, and it’s likely some would prefer the latter. To say that it is revolting to watch a group of self-indulgent amateurs stupidly slaughter beautiful wild animals – some of them endangered – and then blatantly gloat about it with theatrically arranged photos is an understatement.
Supposedly avid hunters, a family of Austrians learns how to use guns to kill wildlife and is instructed to be cautious when approaching the prey as it could still be alive. The killings are horrific and the animals are oddly posed for idiotic photo shoots. The trophy-seekers’ rituals are self-indulgent exercises in cruelty for fun.
So what is the purpose of making and asking an audience to view a movie containing such enraging and nausea-inducing subject matter? Is it to expose the vileness of these practices? Or is it that Seidl enjoys displaying the most grotesque aspects of human behaviour, that which most of us would prefer not to see? A filmmaker who loves to court controversy, his work forces his audience to confront the unpleasantness in the world. To confront it is to better understand it. Humanity does tend avoid the abhorrent when possible, which is precisely what allows it to continue.
Formally and visually, the piece is well-executed with very deliberately created compositions and a tone of remoteness. Often Seidl has one fixed camera before which the characters move in and out of the frame; alternately, he follows a subject while filming. Although a documentary, it also has elements similar to a reality show in that it is partly staged. The trophy hunters are presented in a way that could be interpreted as humorous and tongue-in-cheek, despite the uncomfortable fact that these kinds of people really exist.
A work that asks questions rather than answering them, Safari is challenging, even unbearable to watch if you are not a hunting advocate, even though you have to admire Seidl’s frank brazenness. His courting of the freakish brings to mind classic filmmaker of oddities, John Waters, who once told The Guardian “I want to be despised”. But lest we blame the messenger, it should be noted that Safari presents the facts, whether we like them or not.
Safari does not have a UK release date yet.
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Watch the trailer for Safari here: