THEY say a lion lives in the heart of every brave man and woman. If that is true, Rogue Rubin must have a pride inside her, for the Melbourne filmmaker has been working undercover for years to expose the trophy-hunting business.
Lion Spy: The Hunt For Justice, released on major digital download platforms on Monday, is a part-thriller, part-expose of the plight of wild lions in Africa.
It was screened in Parliament last week to raise awareness of the issue, followed by a screening by Born Free in London which Rogue attended.
Creating a false identity to portray herself as a big game photographer, Rogue, true to her moniker, infiltrated the male-dominated world of trophy hunting, putting herself at enormous risk.
“I lived in a heightened sense of fear every day,” she told me.
“I learned to bite my tongue a lot, especially when I was asked a tricky question.
“But the longer I was there, the more complacent I became and then suddenly I would think about what these people would do if they knew someone there might destroy their livelihoods.
“I still don’t think I have fully comprehended what would have happened, but I certainly don’t think I would have got away scot-free.
“Fundamentally, I am a female, I am alone, and I was getting in to cars with strange men on a wild adventure. Except, these were not just strange men... they were men with guns.
“When you are young, parents tell you not to get in to a car with strangers, but they never tell you not to get in a car with a stranger with guns because they probably assumed that was obvious.”
There were a couple of close calls, including professional hunting conventions where Rogue hid in a bathroom to avoid the tougher questions, as well as a hunt that went awry.
“You would imagine these guys would be good with rifles, but so many were useless,” she explained.
“One day we were all together and had these rifles that have bullets the size of your hand, made to take out elephants.
“We were walking together as a group when a codeword was said which meant we run faster, and someone dropped their rifle and it went off.
“We sat there in dead silence for a few moments because if that had connected, someone’s head would have been off.”
Rogue was born in Cape Town to a Zimbabwean mother and South African father, both of whom were children of Lithuanian Jews who escaped the Holocaust and arrived in Africa as war was raging in Europe.
She lived in a number of cities growing up, including Pretoria, Johannesburg and Auckland, New Zealand.
Wherever the family settled, she attended the local Jewish day schools, before going on to study law.
However, she made her stage debut at age four and filmmaking was her true passion, so she went on to read her Master’s in cinematography and film production.
First mentored under Bobby Roth, the episodic director for Prison Break and Lost, Rogue was soon in demand to direct commercials for brands such as Jack Daniels, Burt’s Bees, as well as the National Football League in America.
Work as an intimacy co-ordinator followed before she became the first director to write and direct a short virtual reality piece, which transformed Emmy-winning actor Jon Hamm into a hologram, a piece exclusively screened at the Sundance Film Festival.
But, combining her love of film with a passion for animal welfare, Lion Spy is something Rogue is incredibly proud to have worked on, and the motivation practically fell in to her lap.
“I came across this post on Instagram which suggested there were only 20,000 wild lions left in the world,” she told me.
“I knew elephants and rhinos in the world were going extinct, but I sort of sat up and took more notice when I read about this iconic animal.
“I was disillusioned with my life in the film and TV industry at the time and I felt like I needed more purpose.
“I have always been obsessed with animals and conservation, and here in front of me I was reading about the human race just letting this species die off.
“I started talking a friend’s head off about the situation and eventually he said ‘you’re getting on a plane, aren’t you?’.
“Next thing I know, he was right, and I was going to meet a group of conservationists who claim that they are saving lions.”
Rogue was invited by a man called Pieter Kriel, owner of Mukulu African Hunting Safaris, to go along on a hunt.
There she witnessed first-hand the people, most often rich white men from America and Europe, who paid as much as $150,000 for a three-week safari, shooting wildly from the back of trucks.
But, in a wildly confusing turn of events, those involved in the trophy-hunting business claim that the hunters’ money goes back in to conservationism, something Rogue wanted to explore.
“I was told ‘if it pays, it stays,’ a popular motto among conservationists as well as the hunting lobby,” Rogue explained.
“I thought it was crazy, but I wanted to see if this was real and if the money was going to conservationism.
“I might not have liked the act, I might not want to be involved in it, but if their money is what is saving a species from extinction then it was my job as someone creating a documentary to tell people.
“Essentially, that is where the rabbit hole started to open and when the walls started to come up.
“There may be some trophy hunters who genuinely believe that their fees go back into a form of sustenance for the land and conservation for the animals, but ultimately, they want the big dead animal on the wall to make them feel special.
“And for those who believe that trophy fees do go back in to conservation, they don’t.”
Having spent years researching the topic, discussing the matter with experts of the field, including Doctor Cameron Murray, who penned The Lion’s Share? On the Economic Benefits of Trophy Hunting, she has realised just how little goes back to conservation.
She accepts that perhaps in some places, the money might go back to some form of conservation, but regions like Africa, dogged by corruption and its third world nature, do not see the benefits of trophy fees.
Ultimately though, she is not anti-hunting, she is merely against glorified trophy hunting which is focused on landing a big prize.
“I am not against hunting for sustenance,” she explains.
“If people had to go out there and kill their own chicken, for example, they would have a much greater appreciation for what they are doing compared with mass consumerism.
“It might never be for me, because I hold a belief that animals are sentient beings, but at least I can understand and respect that we are created as carnivores.
“But to kill for no other reason than ego is just risible.”
As for her role in the subterfuge, her Judaism ended up playing a much bigger role than she expected.
“I was brought up in a traditional Orthodox family and I still consider myself extremely culturally Jewish and, as a vegetarian, it doesn’t affect my diet too much,” she said.
“But going on these hunts was going to be difficult — how exactly am I going to say I don’t eat meat?
“One thing about these hunters though is they are very respectful of religion so I just told them all it was for kosher reasons and it was fine.
“Aside from giving me an excuse, I think my Jewish upbringing has helped share my view on conservationism, too.
“Tikkun Olam is one of the most important phrases we are taught, to look after the planet we have been given and that is something I try and adhere to.
“I don’t think we as a culture or religion should ignore big topics like this.”
She intends for audiences to be repulsed, but she doesn’t want them to feel powerless.
Lion Spy recommends people donate to Panthera or Born Free Foundation, two organisations genuinely working to protect the habitat.
Calculating that hundreds of million of people buy a cup of coffee a day, she insisted that if everyone skipped one coffee a year and instead donated it to the foundations listed above, that would provide enough money to fund national parks and save lions from extinction forever.
But despite all of the good this film hopes to achieve, would she do something like this again?
Absolutely not, she says.
“I feel like I have done the first part of the relay race, and I am emotionally and physically drained,” she added
“The first baton was education, and pulling that trophy-hunting smoke screen away.
“Now I have told the world and I am handing the baton over to the next generation.
“I ran as fast and as far as I can, and now I hope the next generation can continue it.”
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