As seen in 'The Killing Seasons,' Anne Ngcamphalala lost her husband and brother in the first shootout in Swaziland around the poaching issue.

Antonelli Contrasts Africa’s ‘Killing Seasons’

Michael Fox May 18, 2011

Veteran documentary maker John Antonelli made his first visit to Africa around eight years ago. He’s been obsessed ever since, he admits.

“It’s the most fascinating place on the planet because of so many issues percolating on every square inch,” he says, explaining that he expected to have a relatively smooth time getting funding for films about various corners of the continent. “It seemed like money would naturally be attracted to Africa; it seems there’s so much hanging in the balance there. Environmentally, there’s so much potential there for good outcomes and disastrous outcomes.”

In his forthcoming documentary, The Killing Seasons, Antonelli provides a taste of both. Let’s start in Zambia, with the good-news story.

“I was kind of in awe of what they accomplished,” Antonelii says. “The elephant population would have been wiped out [for their tusks] if Mark and Delia Owens and Hammer Simwinga had not found positive solutions. ‘Let’s teach the indigenous people how to farm and mill and keep bees and farm fish instead of working for the illicit poaching industry. Let’s take away the labor force by giving them something better to do with their lives.’”

National Geographic and other entities filmed the Owens’ work going back as far as 25 years, providing a marvelous archival source and visual element for The Killing Seasons. In Swaziland, however, where wildlife protection has led to evictions—and worse—of poor people living near conservation areas, Antonelli is the primary filmmaker. And he’s feeling some pressure as a result.

The Goldman Environmental Prize commissioned Antonelli to produce a profile of Thuli Brilliance Makama, a public interest environmental attorney honored for her campaign to change the practices and behavior of a third-generation Irish family that’s devoted the last 30 or so years to acquiring land and wildlife in an ever-expanding big-game park. The Reillys’ motives in the beginning may have been admirable, but not anymore.

“Swaziland passed very strict laws that game rangers—or anyone working for the Reilly parks—could shoot to kill anyone suspected of poaching,” Antonelli explains. “They brutalized people, tortured people, crippled people, maimed people as a way of sending a message that you better not come anywhere near this game park.”

A case could conceivably be made that extreme action in the defense of endangered animals is warranted. But it went even beyond that, Antonelli says.

“They would go to people’s homes, public places, and shoot people down. And that goes unpunished. The King has empowered them to protect the wildlife, but they‘ve clearly gone way overboard doing that. It’s a hard thing to pinpoint, because people may lose a family member and not even go to the police to report it, but the number [of deaths] is over a hundred people. The Reillys say five or six alleged poachers have been killed, and five or six of their rangers have been killed defending wildlife. I think the number of rangers is accurate, but the other number is way off.”

Antonelli’s initial exposure to Makama and the Reillys, through the Goldman Prize, impelled him to continue exploring the situation in the independently produced and funded The Killing Seasons. For his part, Antonelli is upfront about where he stands.

“I am clearly biased toward Thuli’s side of the story,” he declares. “To me, it’s irrefutable what’s going on there. What I’m trying to do, as a filmmaker in this situation, is correct a wrong. I knew what was going on there needed to have attention called to it, and stopped. Since Thuli won the Goldman Prize, the killing has stopped. That’s a huge relief in many, many ways. But it’s not resolved forever.”

The Reillys are such hard-liners, to hear Antonelli tell it, and so above the law, that they won’t even consider benign, beneficial actions.

“There’s a lot of impala on their preserve, and they reproduce rapidly. They’ll either bring people in who will pay a bunch of money to go hunting, or kill [the animals] themselves and sell the meat. But they won’t say, ‘We’re going to open up the land to the indigenous people who used to live and hunt on this land.’ So there is a real issue with people who’ve lived there for generations. They don’t hunt rhinoceros. These are desperately poor people who hunt small game animals for food.”

Antonelli offers one last bit of evidence that what the Reillys are most concerned with preserving is their power and autonomy. See, they found the project’s Kickstarter page, which was not exactly objective.

“They’ve now leveled a lot of anger at me,” Antonelli reports. “They’ve posted things on the web and they’ve threatened to take my funders to court because I’m telling this story that they don’t want told.”

Antonelli is essentially finished with production, although he’s tempted to make another trip or two. “When I was in Swaziland [in February] there were some things developing that made me think I might want to do a little more shooting,” he says. “And there’s going to be a hearing at the United Nations in the fall around these issues, and that could be the end.”

He’d like to finish the film by the end of the year, but the editing schedule depends on fundraising. The largest grant Antonelli has received was a mere $25,000, he reveals.

“People here who are tuned into Africa are really passionate about it,” Antonelli says. “But I haven’t found the foundation or foundations who are passionate.”

Notes from the Underground
The Ninth Street Independent Media Center was broken into May 8, and six computers and other items were stolen from the Global Film Initiative offices. “The Ninth Street building has Frameline, GFI, SFJFF, CAAM—we represent one of the broadest cross-sections of community in the city, but despite that support we don’t have the resources to stop one guy with a crowbar from getting in here,” GFI director of programs Santhosh Daniel told “People may think we’re easy targets—the guy walked in and made no attempt to cover his face—but we got him on tape and we’re going after him.” … The San Francisco Cinematheque celebrates its 50th anniversary with a benefit this Thursday, May 19 at 111 Minna Gallery. For details and tickets, visit … The NEA awarded postproduction grants of $50,000 to Nancy Kates for Regarding Susan Sontag and $20,000 to Jack Walsh for his documentary on Yvonne Rainer. … Executive director Peter L. Stein announced that he’s leaving the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival following the July-August throwdown, wrapping a successful eight-year tenure, to go back to making films. “I feel that this coming year is the right time to begin the next chapter of my professional life, including a return to developing film and performance projects of my own—an important part of my artistic career that I have had to leave largely on the sidelines while dedicating myself to this terrific organization,” Stein said in a statement.

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