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Oldenburg Film Festival


25th Oldenburg Int'l Film Festival Sept. 12-16, 2018

Rated among the top 5 Film Festivals worldwide for Independent Films by American film critic Chris Gore in his esteemed 'Ultimate Film Festival Guide', and ranked »Top 25 Coolest Festivals in the World« by MovieMaker, Oldenburg has fostered its success with a strong commitment to innovative and independent filmmaking.

Labelled ‘the European Sundance’ by Variety, Hollywood Reporter, and Screen International, amongst others, Oldenburg has evolved while preserving its intimate atmosphere and founding purpose: to celebrate and support the diverse voices and visions of independent filmmakers, to honor the creativity of the artists upon which the Festival depends, and to create a unique experience and inspiring meeting place for filmmakers, audiences, and media professionals.

The only festival in the world to play films in jail and invite festival guests with inmates.

PICTURES GALLERY


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King of Beasts world premiere - An interview with documentary filmmaker Tomer Almagor

(Photo courtesy of Christian Scholz / Filmfest Oldenburg)  

By LINDSAY R. BELLINGER 

 

"King of Beasts" may not be the easiest viewing experience, but it's definitely worthwhile. Six years in the making, this documentary follows Aaron Neilson, a Colorado hunting consultant and big game trophy hunter, as he prepares for his 14th lion hunt. It premiered in the majestic Staatstheater (State Theater) at the 25th edition of The Oldenburg International Film Festival. Co-directors/co-writers Tomer Almagor and Nadav Harel finished shooting back in 2016 but struggled to raise funding to cover post-production costs. Perhaps the the worldwide uproar surrounding the death of Cecil, the 13 year-old lion in Zimbabwe who was killed in 2015, caused some issues. It was fascinating to observe the world of trophy hunting through a fly-on-the-wall perspective, even more so knowing that the filmmakers are avid animal lovers. At times it almost felt more like a pure journalistic piece of filmmaking although the music was occasionally a bit too heavy-handed. The filmmakers' intention wasn't really clear until the end cards when they called out trophy hunting and instead shifted the focus to animal conservation. For some viewers that may have been too late. The nature lovers who are more familiar and comfortable with David Attenborough style documentaries might find "King of Beasts" to be an unsettling affair. This film is a far cry from the average (nature) documentary.  Not everyone was on board for quietly sitting back and listening to Aaron and his chums discuss the conservation efforts and aid to local economies that they see as positives coming from their hunting adventures in Tanzania. After the premiere, I definitely heard some grumbling from those who had hope for some sort of narration. The power of documentary filmmaking is in full force, even though the viewer is left to her or his own devices. It's a must-see film, regardless of one's feelings about trophy hunting. This highly-anticipated and controversial film took the unassuming quaint region in Northwest Germany by the guff. Some audience members were gasping, some walked out. That's the power of cinema. 

Sitting down to talk to Tomer Almagor was quite an experience. His passion for filmmaking and for lions shined through. He was excited to go into more detail about how they observed not only the wildlife in Tanzania but the hunters and locals. Almagor, much like the film, is less judgmental but rather open, asking the viewer to see trophy hunting for what it is, what we see as we follow around Aaron and his buddies. The film crew initially went into this project with the intention of exposing all of the awful, hidden things going on. Instead, they came out of it realizing that trophy hunting is not the biggest problem for lions and other wild animals throughout Africa. That makes this documentary all the more curious. It asks the viewer to take it upon her or himself to research and delve more into this topic. Many of us live in a world that is far too comfortable, far too caught up in tweets. We instantly react and call out something that pops up on social media. The international debate on animal conservation is as contentious as ever and this film is a welcome addition to the discussion. Let's just hope that enough people are willing to give it a shot.   
 
(Photo courtesy of Bärbel Ullmann, taken at the world premiere)
 
Attending your world premiere was quite a visceral experience, sitting there in the Oldenburger Staatstheater with hundreds of strangers, not really knowing what to expect. "King of Beasts" was observational, less preachy than other documentaries. It really brought us into the savannah with Aaron Neilson, your protagonist. Last night before the premiere you said that it was a six-year long project. Can you talk about the early stages of that development process?
 
Tomer Almagor: Well, as I mentioned the idea was brought to my attention by the producer. I didn't know it still existed. I'm a bit naive sometimes and I didn't realize that hunting existed in such an industrialized way with many, many hunters from all over the world. Except 70% of trophy hunters who go after lions are from the US. They go out there and shoot their lion trophy every year. So I was blown away by that as someone who cares about the environment and animals. I also have to say as a cinephile and a filmmaker I grew up on Tarzan movies and Westerns, you know tough men with guns. That appealed to me and I love Africa so I knew right away that there is something that is very cinematic but it's a tough subject. So now the situation was like, "What kind of movie do we want to make?" We were thinking about lions becoming extinct and so forth, so the first thing that came to mind was okay, we're making a cause movie. If we have to make similarities we could say "Blackfish" or "The Cove" and stuff like that. So we were thinking of bringing both sides to the table, you know the animal rights people and hunters and see how that goes. I want to mention here that Gabrielle is not here (at the interview) but she was an instrumental part of getting this to happen. She actually brought the project to me. She's carried this project through the years, when it was in remission through and through. Financing and all the other stuff. She is a major animal lover so for her it was very important that the film actually touches on the real problems and hopefully allows everyone to come to the table and create some kind of a solution. We always knew that there would be a lion hunter at the center of the film.
 
Yeah, you mean Aaron Neilson. 
 
TA: Yeah, exactly. We didn't know it was going to be him. We knew it was going to be a lion hunter so we knew that would be the hardest thing to achieve. Because we come from...politically speaking I'm a liberal so we didn't know how that's going to go. The first thing we had in mind was okay, we're going to go to the conferences. They have these huge conferences. This head of the organization, they have SCI (Safari Club International). They hold these conferences, once or twice a year in Vegas and Reno (Nevada) and later I discovered there's a thing called Dallas Safari Club, DSC, which is separate from the Safari Club International. It's pretty big as well; Dallas can have ten thousand, twenty thousand hunters or hunting-lovers at one time. Safari Club International can have forty, fifty, sixty thousand. And they can have representation there from US Fish and Wildlife (Service) and scientists come. They also have auctions for hunting. It's all around hunting. But it's also all around hunting as conservation. It's important to mention in North America, in The (United) States, we do have the North American hunting model, which essentially supports all of the fishing and wildlife activities in the national parks. We have amazing national parks in America.They are being supported by hunting so people pay for licenses for hunting for deer and stuff like that. The money goes back. And obviously this head organization comes across as the NRA and they're evil. But they are trying to instate the North American hunting model in Africa. They also have a lot of other things that I personally dislike. You know, like they have to hunt the biggest, or they have these competitions where they compare sizes when it comes to lions, which means the head. When you hunt the biggest in the gene pool you are hurting the gene pool. But anyway going back to the subject, you know we started going to these hunting conventions, first of all, undercover kind of like "The Cove". We thought, "yeah, we're gonna catch them." Then we realized that they are very open to speak to you if you come in a certain way. Specifically, for me and my co-director partner (Nadav Harel) we've been to the (Israeli) army and we've both shot guns. And they (the hunting convention attendees) all like Israel very much, maybe it's like an evangelical thing. So it was easy for us to get close to them. And we found quite a few hunters over the years and quite a few of them also backed out. 
 
What reasons did they give for backing out? 
 
TA: For various reasons. I mean if I have to mention one person. He was really into it. But it was his first lion hunt and then he was like, "Well, I want it to be very intimate. I want it to be mine. I don't want you guys tagging along." Plus, hunting is complicated and when you don't feel comfortable about your hunting skills a film crew gets in the way. Well, they always have their own film crew as you see in the movie. They always have that because they wanna immortalize their achievement. So, finally we got to Aaron and that was a fairly quick process even though to make sure he sent us to meet a scientist. Her name is Dr. Paula White. She is a woman that he really trusts. He actually developed The Code of Ethics of Hunting a Lion, which is mentioned in the movie. It has to be at least six years old. He developed that with her and some other scientists. There were a few people on the other side of the fence who were brought into the table like Dereck Joubert who is a major animal rights activist. So that's an interesting initiative. We spoke to Paula and that was a strange experience as well. As a scientist, she gets a lot of hate mail and threats. 
 
It's so bizarre that some of these groups fighting against harming wild animals don't see the wrong in threatening the lives of humans. I really wonder how they can justify that. 
 
TA: Absolutely. In her case we had to go to Northern California. She wouldn't give us the exact location. We met her somewhere in secret, in a national park, not in her home.
 
Wow, that sounds like a super top secret, undercover Deep Throat kind of rendezvous. 
 
TA: Yeah, we came out of our car and she came out of her car. We spoke a little bit, and she realized very quickly that we had done our research. And we come from a scientific standpoint. I guess that it's important to mention that one of the things that we started with was numbers. The first thing that we heard was that less than 20,000 lions are still in existence in comparison to 1970 when they had like 500,000. Then we started hearing, especially from the hunters, that it's 40,000 but the discrepancy is huge, almost 100% or more, 40 to 20. But the bottom line is that it's very low. So once we proved to her that we were prescribing to the idea that the numbers were not clear, we are not necessarily bashing hunters, we're trying to understand and stuff like that, then she was open for an interview. And we got that and once that happened Aaron subscribed to making the movie and we got him. 
 
 
(Still of Aaron Neilson from "King of Beasts")
 
How long was that entire process, before you got Aaron fully on board? 
 
TA: I think about a few months, maybe almost a year because there was a moment when the movie was kind of dead. We had another hunter that was in 100% and he has hunted many, many lions. But he backed out. I'm not sure why. With him it probably would have been a very extreme experience of a movie because he teases the animals to charge him and then he shoots them. 
 
Dangerous.
 
TA: And unethical. He was actually kicked out of the organization and he was one of the founders. 
 
It makes me wonder how he morphed into that extreme of a hunter. 
 
TA: I suppose that he was always like that. That's his personality. Aaron is in your face as you can tell, but he's also sort of well spoken and self-righteous and right in some things. 
 
We are all right in some things, wrong in some things. Nobody is 100% correct. 
 
TA: Exactly, there is no black or white. It's somewhere in between. 
 
That's why I suppose trophy hunting is very controversial. Many people only see black or white. These people will likely go into this film, or avoid this film, expecting to hate it or love it. It'd be nice if audiences would go watch your film, open to taking in all that is up on the screen, judgments aside. It seems a difficult request though, especially after having see the worldwide outrage to Cecil the Lion. Can you talk a little more about Walter Palmer, the dentist who hunted Cecil the Lion? You said last night that the public's reaction to Cecil and Walter Palmer somehow stalled or affected your production.      
 
TA:  Well, not necessarily but it was a strange moment. So we went into the bush (in Tanzania) and we were filming Aaron when this was happening somewhere else in Zimbabwe. And when we came out we didn't have any reception to the media or anything. We came out, it happened. We landed in the US and all of a sudden it came very quickly to us. Back then we were working with high profile celebrities so that's how it kind of came to us. So we started getting requests from Good Morning America and all these crazy shows to comment but we didn't have a movie. We weren't very clear what we just achieved in terms of footage. And we heard so much wrong information in the news, which was sensational. 
 
The media is often completely one-sided on controversial topics such as this, painting someone as evil just for the sake of headlines. 
 
TA: Yeah, completely misinformed and we heard experts. Oh, this lion expert that works at a zoo in Canada he's gonna come on CNN and speak. And then he talks and he has no idea what he's talking about. Plus, talking about Africa as a continent is wrong, especially in terms of lions. Because each country is very different. This film takes place in Tanzania. Tanzania has the largest population of lions. I believe it's about 18,000. Again the numbers, there is no reason to quote them. The bottom line is 18,000 in comparison to say maybe 2,000 or less in Kenya or maybe 5,000 in Zimbabwe. So they have their own issues. On the other hand, they have huge national parks like the Selous and the Serengeti. So a huge portion of this population is protected, to a degree. So with Cecil they can lure the lions out of the park. But that's the thing when they say lure a lion I don't know exactly what happened there. This happened in Zimbabwe, with Cecil. It could be that the lion was very, very hungry. The put bait on the trees. I have to be honest, based on even what you saw in the movie, they do sort of lure the lion to them because lions are always hungry. And when there is free meat on a tree somewhere the lion will go there and will find it as we see in the first encounter in the movie. All of a sudden, when they see the lion, the lion was there because the lion smelled the meat. And they may do a little bit of a dog-and-pony show, for their camera and our camera. But I don't think that they were surprised that the lion showed up all of a sudden.
 
Even though I'm not a fan of hunting, I somehow appreciated it more that Aaron was using a bow and arrow for the hunt, not a gun. It somehow felt more fair to me, going closer to the tradition of arrow and spear hunting. Does Aaron often choose to hunt lions with bow and arrow?   
 
TA: I think that was his first time with bow and arrow. At that point of the film he's taken his 14th lion. I believe that he has the second largest collection as a lion trophy hunter in the world. There is another person named Steven Chancellor. He sits on Trump's Fish and Wildlife Committee right now, which is packed with trophy hunters. Which you know obviously in this case it's leaning more towards...You have to create bonds. It's kind of like we mentioned at the end of the movie, everyone has to come to the table together. There are much bigger problems than trophy hunting. I don't support trophy hunting. I'm totally against it, and I don't see the point in it. But it's on a moral and ethical level, as far as I see it. There are huge problems such as commercial organized crime, poaching, human encroachment. The people just come in and in and in and they take away the habitats of the lions. You know, lions need areas to live and even food in those areas. So there is a clash. The lions will go to the people's areas and eat their cows. If you ever met the Masai people and eat their cows they will retaliate. And the way they do it, they'll poison the source of water. So now you don't lose one lion, you lose a pride of lions and all the animals that touched these lions as well, birds and every animal that drinks from that source of water. So poisoning, human encroachment, poaching these are huge problems. Trophy hunting, if it's done ethically under this code, it works. Again, on my end I'm not sure whether it's always done ethically. And I have no idea whether the lion we tracked with Aaron and they killed in the movie is six years or younger. I don't know. They show us the teeth on purpose. Oh, look. Which is supposed to tell the audience that this lion has been in the wild for seven, eight years because of the bones. They told us something interesting that I didn't know. That lions in the wild only live on average seven to eight years. So lions in captivity in the zoo can live up to twenty years old, but in the wild they have so much competition. Hyenas alone.That's another thing we learned. Hyenas and lions are eternal enemies. Hyenas would come in packs, they will take the prey and fight the lion. They will chase a lion. A lion will essentially, instead of being the king of the jungle or king of the savannah, is now fighting for his place in the food chain. Becoming a scavenger in a way, especially a lonely lion like the one we saw in the film. When it's not in a pride, no lioness is helping him getting food. Because the males are more lazy. They like to hang out for twenty hours. 
 
Can you speak a little more about the lion that Aaron killed in the film? How did you track him?
 
TA: We were tracking three lions in three different areas and trees. And this by the way, I don't know if it shows in the movie, but it's a huge area. You would drive from one bait to another and it would take a couple of hours. So you would spend 18 hours in the back of the truck. Aaron and the driver were the only ones comfortable in those conditions. You keep going to those different trees and keep seeing the photos. You see what lion is feeding there. And then they choose. So they made a choice and kind of let us in on that. They may have looked at the photos and said, this one looks younger. I think that they have. We haven't seen it physically until they have made a decision. It did feel that this lion kind of gave up. 
 
In some ways it feels hypocritical, unless all of these animal rights activists are vegetarians or vegans, that they categorize animals on a certain LEVEL. I mean why should one animal's life be put above another's just because it's cute and has a name? It seems like some protesters really enjoy looking down at others, judging them so harshly when we, as a global society, do consume lots of meat, a lot of which is slaughtered in really unethical (somewhat secret) ways in our home countries.   
 
TA: It's actually important to mention if you remember by the end of the film, there are strings of meat hanging. That's lion meat. 
 
Right, I assumed that's what it was.
 
TA: They say, like in the beginning, that they make beef jerky out of it. There was lion and leopard that they shot earlier. We just didn't want to put the leopard in the film because that scene was competing with the lion. And too much killing is just a turn-off. Nobody wants to, it's just more important that the film shows and takes you on it.
 
Yeah, so the lion meat was actually being used as a source of food, what many outsiders might not even consider. 
 
TA: There's another important thing to mention, people just look at it as Africa and not specific countries. They look at it as the killing of lions, the hunting of lions, the murdering of lions as an umbrella term. You have camp hunting, which is a very unethical sport if you can call it that, which is basically when they breed lions to be shot, in close quarters you know 6000 sq meters or whatever. They release the lion maybe one or two days before the hunter shows up. The lion is half-drugged, very easy to kill. It's murder, it's nothing else. And I guess it's similar to the industrialization of meat in the West. That should be illegal. What we see in the movie is a wild animal hunt. This is a wild lion who lives in the wild. No one knew, either us or them, if there was going to be a lion in that area. They knew that there are wild lions in the area but they didn't know whether they will track one. Again, as an outsider and having spoken to some hunters that actually changed their mind. We had a strong South African consultant on who we started with us. He's hunted and still hunts. He believes that the way to save a hunt, he was talking about a leopard hunt, for 3-4 weeks by foot, the old-fashioned way kind of like seeing at the beginning (of the film). 
 
Yeah, that old footage was a bold start to the film. 
 
TA: But even then we see the white man's camera. They (the native hunters) were still doing it for the camera although they were doing it their way, which was very interesting. Mourning the lion. They were actually respecting the beast, mourning the loss of the animal unlike he (the cameraman) was doing. So there's all these discrepancies in everyone's theories. 
 
The remorse aspect of hunting. Online I was watching some interviews with big-game hunters. Two of them mentioned the remorse, saying that as a hunter if one doesn't feel any ounce of remorse for taking an animal's life then they should really reconsider hunting. I felt like Aaron also touched upon that in the film.   
 
TA: Yeah, he did say that. It's hard for me to always tell whether he (Aaron) totally means things or not, him specifically. But he definitely had all the checks and balances on everything that many of them say. And he felt very sincere sometimes, for example in the gym when he has tears, we didn't stage any of that. We weren't expecting it, we were a little bit kinda looking at each other thinking, "What's going on?" 
 
Yeah, you wouldn't expect someone to openly cry with all of his gym buddies around.
 
TA: So again this is specifically him, which is what makes him a unique individual and a character that is worth following and observing for a film. But I felt that he was sincere. Having tears in his eyes. I mean we all started as hunters and gatherers. We're all removed, I mean look at us in a trendy hotel, you know what I mean. These guys do it as well. I met him in Vegas. They all enjoy the leisures of the Western world. But I guess they want to taste some of the...but it's also important to say that he does it (hunting) in the US throughout the year. 
 
There are definitely some parts of the US where it is unusual if one is not a hunter. 
 
TA: I mean to me, observing him we didn't show him in Vegas or in environments other than his home. But I didn't feel like he was comfortable necessarily in the Venetian in Vegas, but he felt very comfortable in the bush, with the indigenous people. And that's another thing, you know, it was very hard to say whether you are observing colonialism or racism. I believe that there is quite a bit of that. I heard it from other hunters, not from him (Aaron) ever. But at the same time you also watch them working together. 
 
That scene with the natives carrying him on a makeshift throne comes to mind. They all seemed really proud of him.
 
TA: And he paid them a lot of money. It's a relationship that we see in the Western world, between white people. If I'm your boss and I'm paying you $20,000 (17,000€) a week then you're gonna love me...unless I'm really horrible. 
 
It was interesting to see the scene when Aaron was video chatting with his girlfriend, and he talks about his dog Godzilla being the love of his life, which is juxtaposed in front of his three trophy lions. Did Aaron just say that out of the blue?
 
TA: Yeah, mostly yeah. He initiated most of the situations. To me, I wanted to show a little bit of his private, intimate life before we go to Africa. And it was important for me to make sure that he comes across as very human and normal and real. Whether you take the (video) conversation as being something demeaning for women or not that's your take. But you know going on a trip for a long time, he's speaking to his girlfriend and he's being loving in his own way. In terms of the setting, that's the guy's natural habitat. You've seen it here (points to his bicep where Aaron has a lion tattoo) and if you watch those few scenes it's just lions all around. It's almost to the point of being a character.
 
And now you have on this lion hoodie. 
 
TA: Yes, I am a lion. I came prepared. 
 
I actually didn't find his comment demeaning to women because I have married female friends who they tell me that their dogs come before their husbands, so it's just some dog-owner or pet-owner thing. 
 
TA: I love your approach. I think that I believe Aaron, that he loves animals. In my life it's a twisted way too. I don't want to kill anything for any reason. I don't want to be a hypocrite, if you attack me with a knife right now I'm gonna defend myself. 
 
And you're army trained so I better watch out.
 
(Gabrielle Almagor, JVA prison warden Thomas Gerdes and Tomer Almagor before their second screening of "King of Beasts" at the Oldenburg JVA prison. Photo courtesy of Renate Schulze.)
 
I feel like with this film, if animal rights activists and hunters go in with an open mind and give it a chance then they could get something out of it. Like you said, it could open up more dialogue about not just trophy hunting but animal conservation as a whole. It's too bad that some extremists, on both sides of the fence, might not even bother. 
 
TA: I mean, there is a head organization for wildlife protection called CITES and they decide on species every year and stuff like that. We've learned these people are always in conflict, inner conflicts. They all stab each other in the back because it's very hard for them too....and a lot of these people are animal lovers. I'm not going to assume that I know what is at the core of the people who are against trophy hunting. We did go to demonstrations. We wanted to show the other side. We filmed in London, Cape Town, in Tel Aviv, L.A. of course, New York, so we filmed quite an extensive amount of footage with animal rights and wildlife activists. A lot of what they say does make sense. Chris Mercer in South Africa, Tippi Hedren. I had an interview with her; she's very one-sided, hardcore. Trophy hunting is terrible, hunters should be shot. She's very clear, I don't know if she consumes meat or not but she's very clear. She has a wildlife refuge. She saves animals that were brought into the US, like lions and leopards and now the owners don't want to deal with them. That's a completely different thing. There is a brilliant movie about that "The Elephant in the Living Room". I think, that again, numbers are a dangerous zone but there's probably ten to twenty percent on the left side that is extreme, that includes PETA and groups like this you know. PETA not necessary as it's more domesticated animals but I'm sure they have a strand in animal rights. And then you have these same people on the right side that call those people "bunny-huggers" and whatnot and will never speak. But as he (Aaron) says in the movie, the middle chunk of the population, he was saying we gotta sway their minds to our side. I don't think that's the case. The bottom line is, hunting exists. If we take out trophy hunting from Africa, if we take out that component I'm sure that the void will be taken by extreme poaching. As you can see the locals in the movie, they don't like the animals. 
 
Yeah, I was going to ask about that. I liked the little snippets that you included, interviewing one mother and then some of the young men who were helping Aaron. She was saying that she doesn't like the lions because they come and attack the cows and attack people. And the men were saying that they also don't like the lions, either hunting them or if they're not prepared just running away from them. 
 
TA: They like to hunt them for money, for food. You know, if money was out of the equation, food would be the main equation. They would become poachers themselves. If Aaron never came again they would become poachers and kills the animals. If there was no value then they would at least eat it. Then it becomes of value. So that's the most important thing to understand; We're outsiders, we're foreigners, we live in Berlin or Los Angeles. We have food in the supermarket. If we make money to buy it or not, that's our problem. That's our problem, our Western problem. We have our own problems. But over there it's not about that. They have to eat and they can't sit in the corner and beg. So they can't even be homeless, so to speak.They have to live off the land, they have to do it. One of the ways is trophy hunting. Now again, going back to the intention of our movie and how we started it. I'm not advocating that every hunter in the world go and help the poor. No, not at all. I think it should be done in a very balanced, moderate way. And an ethical way. 
 
Along the lines of The Code of Ethics co-written by Aaron and Dr. Paula White?
 
TA: I think so, and I think in countries where lions are being hunted to extinction, they should stop. I don't have the perfect solution, but in Botswana for example, Gabrielle and I look up to Beverly and Derrick Joubert. They were able to ban all hunting and so the lion population is coming back. Lions can reproduce up to six times a year. The lioness can become pregnant every two months. Yeah, I've learned all of these weird things I didn't know. So that means lions can come back pretty quickly. Then you have to have another balance. By the way, that's another important thing that people forget. There has always been some form of balance before colonialism or the White Man. Local people were doing their own balance. Hunting or running away from the animals. Once colonialism took over, they brought in more of a systematic way. You know, bush rangers have been in existence for a long time. They were calling themselves conservationists. People like Willie de Beer and Anne Claire from South Africa. These are the original conservationists. These are Africans that were also hunters. That were calling herds for example. You have a populated area with people and then you have these huge herds of elephants. Elephants take up so much space and they eat everything out of house and home in the area so you have to manage the animals. What do you do with that? I mean that's the thing. It kind of opened my mind. I didn't realize many of these things. When you have all of these animals and all these people in a limited amount of space you have to do some management. There are some ways to do it, like they did in Botswana where there is a smaller population of people. There's land and they found ways to separate people and animals, with the tribes and their cows and the lions. They developed this system where there's a chip in the ear of the lion. I think it's like a sonar system. Essentially whenever the lion gets too close to the cattle it gets rejected by this sound so moves away. So then they find their food elsewhere. It's important to mention that Africa is huge. Even though there is a population growth, like Tanzania had 15 million people in the 1950s and now they have like 55 million. That's a huge population growth. It takes away the areas of the animals but there is still a lot of land. Africa is so much bigger than the US. 
 
Right, in size the US is at least three times smaller than Africa.
 
TA:  Before I came down to meet you I read an article about eco-systems and what amount of land that we need to preserve and not touch. And scientists talk about 50% of the world land, and I think that it's still doable even with a billion people or the ten billion people that they project by 2050. They are saying by 2050 we need to protect 50% of our globe and keep it for animals and wildlife and whatnot. But I think that it's still possible. We have to all come together. Again, obviously with lion trophy hunting there are things that shouldn't be done. They shouldn't take the biggest, they shouldn't completely drain the gene pool, they shouldn't hunt younger lions, the shouldn't eliminate prides, the females. So there's all of these things. A lonely lion, a lion no longer in a pride, no one else is hunting for that lion. And that lion is eighty years old in terms of lion lives so that lion is kind of thrown out. It's ethically fine to hunt that lion, I suppose. That's what they were thinking about with Cecil by the way. Cecil was thirteen years old. But he was beautiful and a symbol. And the funny thing is that I read interviews, and I've exchanged emails with the doctor and scientists from Oxford who were tracking Cecil. The admitted that it was, beyond the sensational uproar, it was okay for Cecil to be hunted. It was just a very sad moment because that Lion had a name, he was beautiful. 
 
Yeah, when you humanize an animal people react differently. 
 
TA: You know, there is a whole brand of people who are called lion huggers, people that hug lions. There is Kevin from South Africa, there are a few others. I don't know what I feel about it. I mean, it's still wild animals. It's beautiful to watch the connection between the wild animal and a human but I think that it potentially sends the wrong message that we can all go out of our car and go hug a lion. 
 
Many people think that we as humans have the right to experience everything for ourselves without really questioning whether or not it is safe or good for the wild animals.
 
TA: Exactly. 
 
So how was the actual experience in Tanzania for you on a personal level, not as a filmmaker? 
 
It was a horrific experience for me. I did not like it one bit. I mean honestly I'm proud of the film for what it is as a cinematic achievement. And I think that as something it will be eye-opening for both sides. Because not all hunters hunt ethically and whether this was an ethical hunt or not it's up to...I don't know the age of the lion. I'm just going by what I was told. At least you know all of the processes were explained whether via images or some words. So it's kind of good for both sides and that was the main intention. Once we realized what kind of movie we were making, the main intention was we want to show the process and what it takes and have people who can experience the experience and be there. By the end of what they watch they can start a dialogue and be asking all these questions, both sides talking about it and seeing if there is a way to resolve.   
 
There has been a lot of anticipation from this film. Six years is a relatively long time, and three years after shooting was finished. What can you tell me about the distribution of "King of Beasts"? When can audiences expect to see it released? 
 
TA: The distribution rights were taken by Gravitas Entertainment, our distributor. And the film will come out in February 2019. We will go to theaters in the States in some kind of a limited release, depending on the acceptance. And then we will go worldwide on VOD platforms. 
 
That's not bad. Do you already have other festivals lined up?
 
TA: We just got a few requests right now, so we might do a festival tour. But we knew ahead of time, ahead of Oldenburg that we were going to get released. So the festivals are very important to us because that's when you actually get to meet other cinephiles, people who really love cinema. And have these intense conversations and whatnot. But we are trusting that the worldwide release will get the movie to a lot of people who don't go to film festivals such as hunters. That would be interesting to see. 
 
Didn't you say after the premiere that Aaron has not yet seen the final cut? 
 
TA: Aaron supports the message of conservancy and obviously he was with us and we watched some of the footage. He understands where we are going. 
 
What can we expect for your next project? Is it a documentary? 
 
TA: I'm usually a fiction filmmaker. This is a deviation from what I normally do. As you said, it was very cinematic and so forth. I was enjoying making it because I felt like I was still making a fiction narrative film. But my next project is called "Reciprocal Beat" and it's a crime thriller with a strong dramatic anchor. And it's about a father-son relationship. It's a father who gets released from prison and wants to take his son on a fishing trip to reconnect, his estranged son. But it becomes this drug-infused odyssey with many, many bad people chasing them around. And I'd like to work with my son on this one. The name of the character is Shane and my son is Shane, so I make sure that he feels very assimilated to the character. 
 
In what stage of the production are you? 
 
TA: We are pretty close. We have some of the cast members. I'm not gonna mention names yet but we have some cast members are known talent. We have most of our finance in place. Obviously screenplay, breakdown, all that stuff. So we are almost there. I decided to come back to my other reality. 
 
So are you based in LA full time? 
 
TA: Yes, Gabrielle and I are based in LA. We have a production company. It's called Urban Tales, and we produce all kinds of movies, smaller and bigger. Gabrielle kind of spearheads the producing and packaging and a casting subdivision, so we cast in-house as well.  
 
If you could sum up your overall experience with your film in three words, what would they be? 
 
TA: Words are cheap...Eye-opening, transforming and educational. 
 
(Photo courtesy of Oldenburg International Film Festival)
 
This might be easier. What three words would you use to sum up your impression of Oldenburg? 
 
TA: Generous. Loving, there is a lot of love. Especially the love from everyone who came to the festival. Putting the festival together for cinema lovers and filmmakers is amazing. I spent a moment with Deborah (Kara Unger) yesterday and I asked, "How are you and Torsten able to not sleep for a month or more?" And she said, "We love you". And I believe her. I think that it's true, I feel it. So yes, it's generous, it's loving and... I'm trying to touch upon the word. It's kind of punk rock. It's anarchistic. It's like in your face. You see what I'm saying? The choice of films. I've been to quite a few festivals. I feel like the curation is very much geared towards let's kick you in the face and bash your head and see what you think about it once you're done watching the film. I didn't get to see enough movies. We look at "Mandy" on the one hand and even though it's crazy and experimental it's fairly commercial because it's still Nicolas Cage, it's an A24 production and it's going into cinemas. Then we look at another film that I watched "Is That You?" (¿Eres tú, papá?), a Cuban film. I didn't know what to expect. And it blew my mind. It's very visceral and slow. But they are both in their way a punch to your face. You have to acknowledge these films and think about them and talk about them. So I think that Oldenburg curates films that demand your attention. 
 

 

 

 

USA / Tanzania 2018

Director: Tomer Almagor, Nadav Harel

Screenwriters: Tomer Almagor, Nadav Harel

Cast: Aaron Neilson

Producers: Gabriel Almagor, Bryan Gambogi, Salomé Breziner, Mark Steele

Cinematographer: Nadav Harel

Editor: Nadav Harel

Research: Tomer Almagor

Music: Simon Taufique

Contact: Gravitas Ventures

Release date: February 2019

86 Min. | English, Swahili with English Subtitles
World Premiere 

 

 


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