With its dark and somewhat obvious portrayal of wealthy Austrians and Germans on a hunting safari in Africa, Ulrich Seidl’s new documentary suggests that the acclaimed filmmaker needs to start challenging himself.
In his previous film Im Keller, director Ulrich Seidl asked his fellow Austrians to show their basements to him, and what they enjoyed doing in them. The concept seemed perfect for the filmmaker who has chronicled the darker sides of Austria’s population in both his documentary and fiction films, highlighted by a rare ability to make his participants share sides of themselves most people would have kept hidden.
But maybe the concept was a bit too perfect. Im Keller turned out to be exactly how one might imagine an Ulrich Seidl film about this topic: In stylized tableaus combined with more observational scenes, a selection of more or less obese Austrians proudly presented their basements and the associated leisure activities, which included playing brass music, the practice of extreme BDSM sex and memorabilia collecting from the heyday of National Socialism. And although Joseph Fritz’s recent crimes were never directly addressed, their shadow further darkened all these downstairs rooms.
One of the basements in Im Keller was decorated with several stuffed animals, which may have pointed the filmmaker in the direction of his next project. In his latest documentary Safari, Seidl follows various Austrians and Germans on a hunting trip in Namibia and South Africa as they sneak up and shoot animals like warthogs, buffalo, zebras and giraffes, whose heads end up on the walls of the hunters’ respective homes.
Triumphant poses. This hunting enterprise seems to be neatly organized in specialized parks, where local employees prepare and show the Europeans how to go about the hunt. According to the hunters themselves, they pay much more for this experience than regular safari tourists, including a detailed prize list for the selection of animals they might kill. To further underline the tourist aspect, every hunt depicted in the film ends with a solemn photo session, which finds the hunter who fired the fatal shot posing triumphantly by his or her once-so-majestic prey.
These observational hunting sequences are combined with interviews with the same hunters (along with a couple who runs one of the parks), filmed in Seidl’s singular style: Static images capturing their surroundings as much as the interviewees, which in this case includes an excessive amount of stuffed hunting trophies. In addition, the film includes several sequences with a middle aged couple sunbathing, which are also unmistakably “Seidlesque” – more specifically resembling some of the scenes found in his 2001 feature film Dog Days.
Colonial reminders. The film also includes scenes with the local employees, skinning and cleansing the animal corpses, while the white hunters passively observe their work. Thus, it is not only the blood and guts that can make you feel a bit sick to your stomach, but also the obvious parallels to colonial times.
In other scenes, the Africans are also shown in more static tableaus. Unlike the safari tourists, however, they are not being interviewed. Instead, they stand still, chewing the meat taken from the prey, or just looking silently into the camera. This is another way through which the film underlines the still-existing border between “us” and “them” – where the Europeans, as opposed to the locals, have been given the opportunity to explain and justify their actions, although the given explanations and justifications do not in any way make this exclusive hunting hobby seem any less archaic and grotesque.
Similarly, the Europeans do not appear any less racist when they express their respect for the local population by praising the Africans’ superior running skills, complete with a physiological explanation of their presumed advantage in this field, with the added comment that this would require that they actually decide to run fast, implying this might not be too often.
Like Im Keller, Safari bears Ulrich Seidl’s signature both in the film’s form and content. There is indeed something admirable about a filmmaker who continues to refine his distinctive style – which has been clearly present throughout his whole career – in such an uncompromising manner.
Nonetheless, Safari seems like a somewhat obvious film coming from Seidl. It also feels a bit too simple. There is not much left here of the thought-provoking ambivalence of Seidl’s feature film Paradise: Love which portrayed middle-aged, Austrian women in search of love among much younger African men, with none of the characters being purely sympathetic or unsympathetic.
Us and them? In Safari, Seidl instead emphasizes the distinction between “us” and “them” (a distinction which was obviously also present in Paradise: Love) in such a blatant way that we rather get the impression of two different types of “them”: One of which are despicable colonists, and the others reduced to extras. One misses the humanism that shined through all the darkness in Seidl’s previous films, making them a lot more complex and disturbing than merely superficial safari trips to the darker sides of humanity.
“The world would have been a better place without people.” These are the last words uttered in Safari. I don’t believe Ulrich Seidl would agree with that statement, but it’s still a conclusion that can easily be drawn from watching his latest effort. It probably means that it’s time for Seidl to start challenging himself, and to find a less familiar terrain for his next safari.