A scene from the 'Trophy' documentary. A scene from the 'Trophy' documentary. A scene from the 'Trophy' documentary. (Photo: Courtesy)

Could this new documentary film be the next 'Blackfish'?

'Trophy' will air on CNN to spotlight hunting and wildlife conservation in Africa.

From "An Inconvenient Truth" to "Blackfish," the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah has a reputation for introducing the public to important documentaries about our natural world. This year was no different.

The world premiere of "Trophy," took place In January, during the opening weekend of the festival. The documentary explores the intertwined issues of trophy hunting and conservation. The movie follows a handful of people – from breeders to anti-poaching activists. Like "Blackfish" before it, CNN has announced that it will air the film with limited commercial interruptions on January 14th, at 9 PM EST.

The new film was co-directed by American filmmaker Christina Clusiau and Israeli documentarian Shaul Schwarz. "I think sometimes we believe that there's this utopian world in magical Africa that the animals just roam free and they live alone on these vast plains, but that's not the reality," said Clusiau. "This symbolism of what a trophy really is to different people I think is important. … One man's treasure is another man's trophy."

Adds Schwarz: "It's one of these worlds that if you're not a part of it, I think you have a preconceived idea. As we tumbled into it, starting with the hunting and really when we went down, we wanted to almost use hunting as an excuse to go into this idea of sustained utilization: What does it really mean to put value on an animal and how do you generate that?"

International clients pose for their trophy picture after shooting a wildebeest in a scene from "Trophy."International clients pose for their trophy picture after shooting a wildebeest in a scene from "Trophy." (Photo: Real Peek Films)

The production of the film was grueling with both filmmakers, as they often trekked 15 miles a day and lugged their own camera equipment through the vast African bush. A lack of reliable electricity compounded issues.

"One of the most difficult scenes was filming an anti-poaching team as they carried out a raid on poachers in a village deep in Zimbabwe," the directors told Filmmakers Magazine. "We had been on the road for six hours and by the time we arrived at the place where we were shooting it was really dark ... The only source of light was from small handheld flashlights and, looking back, the limited light added to the aesthetic of the scene. We didn’t sleep for over 36 hours on that shoot and went back to camp with what ended up being a very intense scene in the film.... The other very emotional challenging scene was filming an elephant hunt. We walked for three days and then the hunt happened so fast. We quickly understood that most of the scene would take place after the gun would fire. We both cried."

Positive reviews for the film have been rolling in. "Its ability to enrage, enlighten and confound in equal measure make it a non-fiction prize of this year’s Sundance Film Festival," wrote film critic Nick Schager in Variety. The film has a remarkable 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

John Hume, the world's largest rhino breeder, in a scene from the new documentary.John Hume, the world's largest rhino breeder, in a scene from the new documentary. (Photo: Real Peek Films)

Film critics aren't the only ones to take notice. CNN is looking to mimic the success of another environmental documentary. "Blackfish," which tells of the abuse of killer whales at SeaWorld amusement parks, also debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. CNN picked up the movie and aired it several times throughout the fall of 2013.

The film caused a public backlash against the theme park. Revenue and attendance dropped sharply. In November 2015, SeaWorld announced plans to end killer-whale shows at its San Diego location. And in March of last year, SeaWorld revealed it would end its orca breeding program and begin to phase out all live performances using orca whales.

Schwarz joins fellow Israelis on a mission to shed light on poaching issues in Africa. In recent months, we profiled Ofir Drori, who is helping arrest the continent's worst wildlife traffickers, as well as a veterinarian named Yaron Schmid who is photographing endangered animals to bring more awareness to their cause.

This is not Schwarz's first film to premiere at Sundance. His documentary "Narco Cultura," about a Mexican drug cartel, debuted in 2013 at the winter festival. When he's not making issues-based documentaries, the Tel Aviv-born Schwarz films for the likes of the Discovery Channel and National Geographic. He's also launched his own company in Brooklyn, called Real Peek Films, that produces short film content for online publications.

As for the news that CNN will be airing his film "Trophy," Shaul was both humble and ecstatic: "We are overjoyed and endlessly grateful."

The crew behind the movie "Trophy" celebrate at the Sundance Film Festival.The crew behind the movie "Trophy" – including director Shaul Schwarz, center in blue shirt and jeans – celebrate at the Sundance Film Festival. (Photo: Facebook)

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