SA anti-rhino poaching film bags top international award
New gongs add to 17 awards the courageous film already has - not bad for a project that struggled to get funding
An SA film, Stroop: Journey into the Rhino Horn War, has won one of the world’s top wildlife film awards, taking the Best of Festival at the International Wildlife Film Festival in Montana, US at the weekend.
Up against 300 others films, including from the likes of NatGeo, BBC and Netflix, the local anti-poaching film, described by the judges as “heartwarming and heartbreaking”, also won the Best Independent or Feature Film category. It is the 17th accolade for the film, released just a few months ago and directed by Susan Scott and Bonné de Bod.
The filmmakers struggled to fund the movie, selling their homes and running a crowdfunding campaign to do so. It was unable to find local distributors, but Scott and De Bod are now in talks to get it onto SA television.
And, as they told the Sunday Times in January, they wanted to make a film “without censorship and hidden agendas”.
Here is that article, by Anton Crone in Times Select’s sister publication:
Not just a rhino story
Under the warm glow of an infrared light, the infant rhino Makhosi is a small figure lying on a blanket. She huffs and puffs, her little chest expanding and contracting rapidly, then she squeaks in distress and opens her eyes. A hand reaches out to soothe her and we hear the soft calming voice of her minder. Makhosi closes her eyes but panic takes hold once more. She pants in an anxious plea for her mother, who she will never see again because of a poacher’s bullet.
I’m watching Stroop: Journey into the Rhino Wars, on the big screen. I’ve experienced tidal waves of emotion: rage, sorrow, even glee. One unforgettable scene portrays Makhosi cavorting in a yard in unbridled joy, like a puppy. A contrasting scene shows another orphaned rhino squealing loudly in distress, trying to escape as rescuers coax it into a bakkie. The high-pitched cry of the calf is almost human, a mournful, pleading sound I will never forget.This is the most emotive documentary I have ever watched, and I believe Stroop (Afrikaans for “poach”) will alter the course of rhino conservation.What makes this film so good? I think it’s because it’s made by women. I don’t believe the armed rangers who risk their lives for rhinos would have been so candid if they were speaking to men, or that the rhino breeders would be as transparent. I don’t believe the woman using rhino horn as part of her cancer treatment would have agreed to be filmed if she had been approached by men, nor would this film have the finesse that is necessary to tell complex truths that are so polarising and so emotively raw.
Filmmakers Susan Scott and Bonné de Bod appear in front of the cinema screen after the titles have rolled. We should all stand and applaud wildly but the audience is stunned and we can only muster a damp round of clapping. Scott and De Bod have stood in front of many such audiences. They know the power of this story that lifts the veil on a dark and unforgiving world.
Stroop has sold out at every screening in SA. It has been shown at 15 international film festivals – “We thought we’d be lucky if we were selected for two or three”, said Scott – and has already won 10 awards, including best documentary at the San Diego International Film Festival, most courageous film at the Courage Film Festival in Berlin and best newcomer award at the Wildlife Film Festival in Rotterdam.
The pair funded the project with their savings, small grants and crowdfunding.
“We wanted an independent film without censorship and without hidden agendas,” said De Bod.
When I first interviewed the pair, nearly four years ago, they thought their film would be done in a few months, but the more they researched the deeper they got. “We found ourselves immersed in a world far larger and more dangerous than we anticipated,” De Bod said.Four intense years followed. Both women moved in with their mothers to save money (they still haven’t moved out), gave up financial security and put themselves in extreme situations. They filmed in the bush with armed rangers, in courtrooms with accused poachers, in the workshops of illegal wildlife traffickers and at the side of reeking rhino carcasses.
After hundreds of interviews, months of investigative work and endless editing, they have just returned from the film festival circuit in Europe and the US and are excited about the prospects of screening Stroop to more South African audiences, most importantly to policymakers and to communities living on the border of the national parks – where as many as three rhinos are slaughtered every day.
Before Stroop, Scott had spent 10 years in the US studying filmmaking and worked as an editor and associate producer on TV shows, including the wildlife show 50/50. De Bod was a model before becoming a television presenter for the same show.When De Bod was hired to present on 50/50, Scott said, “I thought I’d be working with a poppie but I soon realised that Bonné was incredibly professional and hard working”. They became good friends and filming rhino-related content for 50/50 inspired them to pursue their dream of an in-depth documentary.They spent a great deal of time establishing relationships. Some interviews were filmed after three years of building trust. They became close to rangers and collaborated with a young woman investigating illegal wildlife trade in Johannesburg – in one of the documentary’s most dramatic sequences she lures traffickers into a sting operation.
Scott and De Bod not only filmed in Africa, they also went undercover in Vietnam, a key market for illicit rhino horn, ivory and other wildlife parts. Here again, they felt that being women gave them an advantage. Traffickers opened up to them and granted them almost unprecedented access to workshops.
To gain access to some places, De Bod posed as a Dutch film star and buyer of rhino horn. The undercover situation was risky and De Bod and Scott were nervous, but they managed to interview a woman who uses rhino horn in the mythical belief that it will cure her cancer. In the woman’s home, De Bod listens as the woman explains how she grinds the horn in a special bowl to make a powder she can ingest with water.
I realise they have come full circle: the horn the woman hands to De Bod might easily have come from Makhosi’s mother.Baby Makhosi cannot fail to move even the most hardened audience, but it is De Bod and Scott’s ability to engage with people, whether vulnerable, dangerous or courageous, that gives the film its human depth. This is not just a rhino story. It is a human story that reveals our conflicted and conflicting natures.