- HORN is a new documentary following South African actor Jeffrey Mundell as he trades his comfortable life in the suburbs for anti-poaching ranger training in the bush.
- HORN was directed by Reina-Marie Loader.
- The film is making its U.S. debut Oct 24 at the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York City.
HORN sheds light on South Africa’s rhino poaching crisis from a different angle
In 2011, filmmaker Dr. Reina-Marie Loader had an unforgettable, close encounter with three rhinoceros in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Dr. Loader was acutely aware rhinoceros poaching rates were increasing in South Africa and, with her experience in documentary filmmaking and interests in conservation and human rights, decided to create a film that would explore the economic and cultural drivers behind it. The result is HORN, a lived documentary following South African actor Jeffrey Mundell as he trades his comfortable life in the suburbs for anti-poaching ranger training in the bush. His difficult and dangerous experience, combined with Dr. Loader’s interviews with local NGOs and community members, reveals how populations living within close proximity to wildlife are not only dealing with the impacts of poaching, but are also affected by serious social problems, including poverty, HIV, and unemployment.
HORN will premiere in the U.S. at the upcoming Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York City on October 24th.
An interview with Dr. Reina-Marie Loader
Mongabay: What is your background?
Dr. Loader: I have been involved in raising awareness about human rights and the environment since a very young age. In South Africa, I grew up participating creatively by acting in plays about social and environmental issues. Some of the plays I specifically enjoyed being a part of included issue-based productions about ground and water pollution, drug abuse and mental illness.
As I grew older, my interest migrated to directing film. Consequently, I moved to England to study film at the University of Reading, where my love for thinking critically about film was also developed. I did my PhD in film docudrama and then later lectured at several universities. I specialized in what is called practice-as-research – that is, a form of research that uses filmmaking as a way to investigate and ask important questions about the world.
HORN is a direct result of this background of mine. It is not a ‘normal’ conservation film in the sense that I focus on animals. Instead, I focus on people while the style of the film is very different from most films about rhino conservation. It is not action packed, but contemplative – while placing conservation in a direct relationship with socio-economic and socio-political conditions in South Africa.
Marie Frei for Mongabay: What sparked your interest in South Africa’s rhino poaching crisis?
Dr. Loader: I have always been interested in conservation – ever since I was a little girl. My love for animals (especially elephants, rhinos, wild dogs and leopards) developed because of the exposure I had to wildlife as a child. My father was a conservationist and worked as an honorary ranger in several National Parks. Going to the Kruger National Park with him and my family instilled in me a deep desire to preserve this massive national heritage in South Africa, namely wildlife and parks.
Marie Frei for Mongabay: Your first two films, Cutting Silence and Sarajevo: Shelved Memories focus on humanitarian issues. How did your experience creating these two films influence the way you tackled the subject of wildlife conservation?
Dr. Loader: These two films differ from HORN in that they are narrative-based films. However, a constant that one can see through all of my work is its focus on human rights issues as well as the human experience. Cutting Silence focuses on a human rights issue affecting African women, while Sarajevo: Shelved Memories focuses on how European men experience war and cope with its inhumanity. HORN develops on from this by using an actor in a real situation within a poaching context and thus looks at the rhino-poaching crisis from a human perspective. It seeks to highlight how caring about animals – perhaps surprising for many people – is also linked to human rights and dignity.
Marie Frei for Mongabay: How does HORN differ from other films about the subject of poaching and the illegal wildlife trade?
Dr. Loader: By and large rhino conservation and anti-poaching films have thus far looked at the situation from a very dramatic and sometimes sensationalist point of view. I did not want to do this with HORN. The style of the film reflects the real situation and the pace of Africa. What you see is what we encountered, shown in the most honest way possible.
Another dimension that makes HORN different from other films, is the fact that it looks at the situation from a social perspective. We focus on the role of people in the crisis and not only on the tragedy of what is happening to the animals. We did so because I believe that is where the answer lies – when we start thinking more about how people can contribute to saving the rhino through providing underprivileged communities surrounding rhino poaching hotspots with skills, knowledge and jobs related to keeping wildlife alive. In arguing for this social focus on conservation, HORN therefore also communicates hope, which is a rare thing in any medium when talking about the rhino-poaching crisis.
Marie Frei for Mongabay: What made you decide to use an actor to help tell the story?
Dr. Loader: There are several reasons for using an actor, but mostly, it has to do with authenticity and truth. In terms of authenticity, it was important to have access to the young trainees we were following. We needed to be right in there in the thick of things, while not manipulating the situation and we wanted to record events as we encounter them (not as we ‘planned’ them). Putting an actor in the situation allowed us to interact more with the trainees through him, because he stayed with them twenty-four-seven and he was going through everything with them as their equal and a genuine co-trainee. Subsequently, he could communicate to us exactly what he was experiencing in a direct and authentic fashion.
Secondly, we were dealing with a very emotive subject about which everybody involved in rhino conservation has an own opinion, and therefore also a preconceived motivation for talking to us. Getting an accurate and truthful account of the situation was therefore not guaranteed – and truth, as I mentioned before, was very important to us. Using a completely detached and objective actor as a vehicle allowed us to observe the situation and dynamically come to the arguments we ultimately make in the film. It is this process that brought us to understand the importance of looking at the situation socially. It was a fascinating process, because in order to objectively and logically formulate arguments, we had to employ a practical methodology that was, paradoxically, subjective in nature. Using the actor allowed us to reflect the experiences of people, rather than their preconceived opinions about the situation.
Finally, the character allowed us to draw out a core issue that is in my opinion still very relevant in South Africa – the fact that there are so many socio-economic differences between people. His personal transformation was fascinating to observe. We did not plan or manipulate this; it just happened by throwing the actor (Jeff) into this situation. This is the first time I have used this process and it is one that I would like to experiment with more. I found it fascinating!
Marie Frei for Mongabay: The threat of danger and harsh environment rangers work in can take a physical and psychological toll. What were some of the challenges you personally experienced while filming for two months in the bush?
Dr. Loader: I developed a deep respect for rangers who commit themselves to this cause, because it surely isn’t easy. We were often in remote secluded areas where we either had to walk long distances or had to drive for hours between locations. You sleep in a small tent without any lights at night – because that can be dangerous when there are poachers about.
What I found the most challenging was the eating habits. Jeff, for example ate exactly what the trainees ate – which was traditional maize porridge, a bit of cabbage and a spoon full of venison, but mostly maize porridge. For those of us who are used to eating fresh fruit and vegetables, this switch in diet proved quite problematic and caused a lot of … well … discomfort for a few weeks. I eventually couldn’t stay on that diet, but impressively Jeff did and by the end of the production he seemed to be quite used to it.
Marie Frei for Mongabay: HORN is a lived documentary, meaning, the film captures a moment in time during an event as it continues to unfold. When the film was released in 2014, South Africa reported a year of record-high rhino poaching rates. As of August 27th 2015, South Africa has already lost 749 rhinos to poaching. How do you feel about the issue right now, and, are you optimistic for the future?
Dr. Loader: I believe there is undoubtedly reason to be optimistic and positive. South Africa has shown to the world once before that it can tackle a massive problem by making ethical decisions. By looking at the rhino-poaching crisis from a social perspective and respecting life (both animal and human), we can prove to the world once more that we are not in it for personal gain. By tackling rhino poaching…you start to address all the other issues, as well. So, protecting the rhino can have a massive positive impact on the entire country.
Marie Frei for Mongabay: What impact do you hope this film will have?
Dr. Loader: I hope that people will notice the sincerity of the film’s desire to present an alternative view on the rhino-poaching crisis. The film notably sees the dignity of people deeply connected to the dignity of our animals. Wildlife is such a significant part of the South African economy. Animals could therefore contribute so much to the betterment of the current social situation.
In my opinion, many people, both nationally and internationally, make the mistake of seeing African wildlife as products that can be exploited for personal gain. However, I hope that the film will convince people that we should alter our perspective to see our wildlife as a resource for personal growth while contributing to the country’s economic prosperity. Protecting the rhino means employment to people who have no employment. Monitors, rangers, guides, teachers, conservationists and eco-reserves that address educational gaps are all positive results growing out of seeing the rhino as a resource, and not as a product to be exploited, used and consumed. So, if the film can play a part in communicating this message, I would be very happy.
HORN is just one of the 85 films premiering at the 5th Annual Wildlife Conservation Film Festival at New York City’s Anthology Film Archives from October 19th-22nd, 24th & 25th, 2015. In addition to promoting programs and projects that contribute to the protection of biodiversity and sustainability around the world, the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival provides several unique opportunities for conservation experts and filmmakers to interact directly. For more information on the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival including tickets, please visit WFCC.org.