At a hunting lodge deep in the South African bush, many hours from the nearest town, half a dozen weary men rest their bare feet on the stone rim of a fire pit. Embers rise and mingle with the stars in the cloudless sky above them as they swig on cold beers, washing down the steaks the chef has cut from the antelope they shot earlier that day. Laughing raucously, they trade tales of the ones that got away, and the many that didn’t.
As the night wears on and the banter turns bawdy, the sole woman in the party laughs along, pretending not to notice the stares and innuendo directed her way, waiting for the moment she can make her excuses and slink off to her thatch-roofed hut alone.
As soon as she’s inside, she musters every bit of strength in her tiny 158-centimetre frame to drag a heavy timber dresser in front of the door, hoping it will be enough to keep any predators at bay. As she turns the lights off and edges towards a fitful sleep, she wonders what the hell she’s got herself into.
The men know her as Joni Michelle Kiser – and, like them, she’s here to shoot. But while they carry guns that fire bullets as large as a human hand, she carries only a camera.
She’s a young photographer and videographer looking to sell her work to big-game hunting magazines and websites, and this is her first safari. The professional hunting outfitters and their high-paying clients – a group of three men from Singapore, here to mark a 30th birthday by bagging a zebra – have taken her under their wing, laughing at and indulging her naivety, secretly delighted to have a pretty young thing among them.
What they don’t know is that the woman in their midst is not who she says she is. Her real name is Rogue Rubin, she’s a liberal, Jewish, vegetarian filmmaker from Melbourne – not the gun-toting, Republican-voting Texan she’s led them to believe – and she’s here to shoot footage for a film she hopes will expose what really goes on in the world of big-game trophy hunting.
This hunt is just the first of about 10 Rubin will tag along on over the next few years as the trips move up the food chain from antelope and hogs to the biggest prize of all, full-maned male lions, for what will become Lion Spy, an undercover documentary seven years in the making. The film’s target is the trophy-hunting industry, and the spin it uses to magically transform this cruellest of sports into an ostensible conservation movement. In it, Rubin seeks to expose what she calls the lies that underpin trophy-hunting, lies that have, she believes, brought her beloved lion to the edge of extinction.
But on this night in 2014, as she hides in plain sight among these men with their guns and their disdain for those who oppose what they do, she can’t help but feel that if her cover is blown, there’s a real chance she could end up dead, too.
Rubin tells me her story as we wander the streets of Elsternwick, takeaway coffees in hand, in the dying days of Melbourne’s sixth lockdown. A fast-talking bundle of energy in Lycra sports leggings and a sleeveless puffer jacket, her conversation darts along almost as many random-yet-connected paths as the life that has brought her to this point: Lion Spy, her first film, will land in cinemas on November 24, just weeks after her second, the Queensland-shot romcom Love in Bloom, debuted at the Brisbane International Film Festival.
Joni “Rogue” Rubin began life in Cape Town, South Africa, the middle child of three born to a teacher mother and school principal father (Rubin has requested her parents not be named for fear that she – and thus they – could be targeted by the hunting lobby or US National Rifle Association-aligned interests once her film comes out).
Her mother, originally from Zimbabwe, and her Johannesburg-born father were both children of Lithuanian Jews who escaped the Holocaust and came to Africa as war was raging in Europe. They raised their children to disdain the apartheid system. “My parents were embarrassed at coming from a country that embraces racism,” Rubin tells me.
The family remained in South Africa for the first seven years of Rubin’s life, when the apartheid regime of the National Party’s P. W. Botha and, later, F. W. de Klerk was coming under increasing pressure both internally and from abroad. It was a time of deep racial division and violence, but they’re not the memories she has.
“I spoke multiple languages, had friends of every colour and race, my friends were everything,” she says. Still, she doesn’t identify as South African, with all that it implies. “I’m African. I embrace the continent of Africa.”
The Rubins lived opposite an animal sanctuary, and young Rogue would regularly cross the road to admire the ostriches. As a toddler she would adopt shongololo – the foot-long giant millipedes common to southern Africa – as pets. “I was a tomboy,” she says. “I climbed every tree, played with animals and insects.” At the age of four she became a vegetarian when an older friend explained where meat came from.
When her father got a job at a Jewish school in Auckland in the mid-1980s, the family moved to New Zealand, where Rubin settled in easily. “She was fabulous; from the second I met her I loved her,” says Katie Marks, one of her closest friends three decades on. “She was not, and is not, like anyone else. She had a confidence even as a kid that was so inspiring. Her confidence gave me confidence.”
Rubin had made her stage debut aged four, and in New Zealand she was soon treading the boards in professional productions, including one of Oedipus Rex at Auckland’s Mercury Theatre.
In 1996, when she was 14, the family moved to Melbourne after her father was appointed principal of Mount Scopus, the Jewish private school that counts Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, billionaire retailer Solomon Lew, the late music promoter Michael Gudinski and fellow documentarian Eva Orner among its alumni.
“I knew elephants were endangered. I knew rhinos were endangered, I’m not a stupid person – yet I had no idea lions were endangered.”
For a while, Rubin thought acting was where her future lay. “I was so taken by theatre, by actors, by storytelling and the ability to create personas and affect people and make a difference,” she says as we settle at a picnic table in a park thrumming with the noise of children drawn by an unusually long slide. “I remember being so impressed by actors who used their prestige to make a difference.”
As a kid in New Zealand, she’d had “these stupid visions that I could make all this money and bring vaccines to Africa”. By her teens, she’d worked out where the real power was – “I realised directors had more ability to create the story than actors” – but when she left school, it was law she studied rather than filmmaking. “Let’s be honest, I was afraid,” she tells me. “Filmmaking is a really difficult career path.”
Yet it’s one she couldn’t quite resist. From her early 20s, she began splitting her time between Los Angeles and her parents’ home in Melbourne. She worked on the fringes of the film industry, helping stage A-list events at which the guests included George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt (“The only celebrity to whom I was too awestruck to speak”). She worked as a publicist at film festivals – including one run by Michael Moore, of Bowling for Columbine fame – and talked her way into internships and low-level jobs in film and TV production.
Eventually, she began landing work as a director of television commercials, and of a hologram for virtual and augmented reality, starring Mad Men’s Jon Hamm for the January 2017 premiere of his film Marjorie Prime at Sundance.
Right from the start, Rubin’s determination was plain to see. Paul Wiegard, co-owner of independent distributor Madman and a guest speaker at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology when Rubin was enrolled there in a master’s of media, says she was possessed of “equal measures of self-belief and chutzpah”.
Richard Moore, who was artistic director of the Melbourne International Film Festival a decade ago when Rubin was a publicist there, remembers her as “ambitious, charismatic, fierce”. She had a ready laugh, and the gift of the gab. “If Rogue walked into a room with a proposal and you gave her five minutes of your time, you would be hard pressed not to write the cheque,” says Moore.
For all her drive and ambition, however, by 2014, Rubin felt lost. She was working in Los Angeles as a producer on the daytime talk show Dr Phil, a job that entailed interrogating strangers in the name of scandal and entertainment. “You spend 10 to 20 hours interviewing your subjects, annotating everything; it’s a real deep dive,” she says.
One day she was sitting in the show’s green room with a guest when she had an epiphany of sorts. “He’s this guy who thinks the television is telling him to kill people – ‘Is it telling you anything right now? Just checking’ – and I felt really disheartened,” she says. “I realised, ‘I don’t want to be doing Dr Phil, I don’t want to be doing reality, there’s a part of me that says there’s got to be more.’ ”
That’s when the post that would change her life popped up in her Instagram feed. It was from a social media influencer in South Africa and it claimed lions could soon become extinct. And despite her love of animals and her deep sense of connection to Africa, it came as a shock. “I knew elephants were endangered,” she says, “I knew rhinos were endangered, I’m not a
stupid person – at least, I didn’t think I was – yet I had no idea lions were endangered.”
Soon after reading that post, Rubin quit her job on Dr Phil and headed to South Africa to meet the influencer behind the post. It was a deflating experience. He claimed to be working to save the lions but couldn’t answer basic questions like how many were left in the wild, or why canned lion hunting was bad (“canned” lions are bred in captivity, then released as adults into large enclosures to be hunted and shot by trophy hunters). He seemed more interested in selfies and selling branded merchandise than in any practical measures to save the big cats.
She also met people who said they were breeding lions in order to save them (she later discovered their links to the canned hunting business). She petted cubs and walked with lions in the belief they were being bred for release into the wild, not knowing that their genetic stock was so compromised by inbreeding, disease and zoochosis (a mental illness typical of animals in captivity) that to do so would endanger the wild lions already there.
Most confusing of all, she met people who claimed hunting lions actually helped conserve them, because the large fees paid by trophy hunters – most of them rich, white men from the US and Europe – contributed to the upkeep of protected areas and the rangers who patrol them. They told her, “If it pays, it stays,” invoking the motto that has support among some conservationists as well as the hunting lobby. She didn’t know what to believe any more.
After several months, on the day before she was due to fly home she was put in contact with Chris Mercer, a Zimbabwean living in South Africa who ran a campaign against canned lion hunting. She took a six-hour round trip by bus to meet him in the Western Cape city of George, “and he really laid it all out for me. He explained it to me in a way no one else had.” His key point was simple: “If we want to save the lions, we have to expose the trophy hunters and their lies.”
Back in Australia, Rubin concluded the only way she could understand the situation properly would be by going on a hunting safari herself. “I didn’t know what I was going to discover,” she says. “Maybe I go on a hunt, I’m sick to my stomach, but I discover ‘If it pays, it stays’ is true, and I move on with my life.”
As Rogue Rubin, she reached out to some outfitters asking if she could come along on a hunt, but her approaches went nowhere. So, as she details in her film, she tried a different approach, creating a fake online identity as American photographer “Joni Michelle Kiser”, with a folio of images and a propensity for liking hunters’ photos on social media (there is, in fact, an actual hunter called “Joni Kiser” in the US, but Rubin swears she had no idea at the time). Eventually a man called Pieter Kriel, owner of Mukulu African Hunting Safaris, responded. “Would you like to come along on a hunt?” Rubin – or rather, Kiser – said she’d love to.
Counting lions is a tricky business – they roam widely, are well camouflaged, and tend not to submit readily to tagging – but there’s little doubt they are at risk. Some estimates suggest that a century ago, there were maybe 200,000 in the wild across Africa. Today, the most commonly cited figure is about 20,000, though some accounts put it much lower, perhaps less than 10,000 in the wild. (Captive-bred lions are counted separately; in South Africa alone, there could be as many as 12,000, about six times as many as in the wild.)
Lions have disappeared from about 95 per cent of their historic range, and in 26 African countries, including Gambia, Mali, the Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, they are now extinct. The benchmark Red List, maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, rates the lion as “vulnerable”. But its West African sub-population is considered “critically endangered”, and wild cat conservation agency Panthera warns that “any further rapid declines may see lions listed as ‘endangered’ across their range”.
The role trophy hunting plays in this picture is complicated. Advocates say it brings much-needed money to remote communities, and provides funding for habitat preservation and anti-poaching measures that actually help preserve lions. Critics say only a small fraction of the enormous fees paid by trophy hunters goes to those communities, and even less to conservation. There is at least general agreement that in terms of threats to lions, trophy hunting ranks below hunting for bush meat (for local consumption) and bone (for the Asian medicinal market), farmers killing them to protect livestock, and encroachment of human settlement on traditional habitat (by far the greatest threat of all).
But, Rubin argues, there are powerful interests furiously working to obscure the peril lions are in, and those interests are more often than not linked to the trophy hunting industry.
In her film, she captures footage from a conference of the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa, which describes its members as “conservationists”, in which a speaker predicts that lions could be extinct within 15 years. She details how in the US the Trump administration abolished an environmental body that had in 2015 categorised lions as “endangered” and replaced it with a new authority, its board stacked with hunters, that overturned a ban on the importation of hunting trophies (the stuffed carcasses and mounted heads of animals). She has footage of hunters killing lions, zebras and, perhaps most distressing of all for the sheer idiocy of the act, a giraffe. (“I didn’t even put the worst stuff in,” she tells me, “because it just felt like too much.” )
She traces the links between various “conservation” groups and scientists with often-undeclared links to the hunting lobby. She shows that despite talking a great game about “fair chase” hunts on foot, humane kills, and only taking out very carefully selected animals, the reality is quite different: inexperienced hunters who have paid as much as $150,000 for a three-week safari, shooting wildly from the backs of trucks (a practice supposedly frowned upon, but seemingly widespread); injured animals limping off into the bush for a painful demise; and male lions at their reproductive peak being taken for their prized manes, thus reducing the overall genetic resilience of the pack.
The confusion about what really goes on is, Rubin argues, precisely the point. “Trophy hunters create a smokescreen that clouds our view, so we don’t know lions are endangered,” she says. In her view, the conflation of hunting and conservation is risible.
“A trophy hunter is there to get a big dead animal on their wall to make them feel special.”
She wanted audiences to be repulsed, but she didn’t want them to feel powerless. In the way of many activist documentaries these days, Lion Spy ends with a call to arms – and one so painless it’s hard to believe it could work, or that it hasn’t already. Skip one cup of coffee a year and instead donate the money you would have spent to Panthera, Born Free Foundation or one of the three other organisations she claims to have vetted enough to feel confident are genuinely working to protect the habitat that will keep lions safe.
“I wanted to come up with something really simple, so I did the calculation that 280 million Americans buy a cup of coffee a day, at a minimum of $4,” she says. “So if we skipped one coffee a year and instead gave that $4 to one of the foundations I’ve listed, that would be enough to fund national parks and save lions from extinction. Forever.”
Rubin started making her film before the case of Cecil, a lion killed by an American trophy-hunter in Zimbabwe in 2015, captured global media attention. On that first hunt in 2014, she says, “I was doing everything Mum told me not to do. I’m getting into a car with a strange man. And he’s got a gun. And I’m going to a place that has no phone reception, in the middle of Africa, and I don’t know where I’m going, no idea how anyone can contact me, and no one really has any idea that I’m doing this because I don’t want to scare my parents and I haven’t told anybody because I don’t know who I can trust.”
She learnt to bite her tongue. Whenever she was asked a tricky question she’d respond with one of her own – “Which men love,” she quips. “It wasn’t hard.” She managed to brush off the meat question at dinner time by professing to eat kosher only (“They really respect religion”), though she once caved and ate some chicken (“There’s only so many crackers you can stuff in your bag”). But a long way from home, under the care of a man who says in the opening frames of her film that “blacks are animals”, the risks were real. “Anyone can get rid of you very easily in Africa, corruption is rampant, guns go off, everyone owns them. ‘Dumb tourist; who cares?’ ”
When the scans came back, it was good news and bad: the pelvis wasn’t broken and would heal itself; on the other hand, she had breast cancer.
There are four hunting trips in Lion Spy, but Rubin reckons she made close to 10 over a period of about three years. By 2017 she had enough material in the can, but in chasing just one more shot on one last safari in South Africa, she fell backwards off a four-metre cliff and seriously injured herself. She returned to the US to film a National Football League commercial, but was in so much pain that she sought the advice of an orthopaedic surgeon (her cousin) in Sydney. When the scans came back, it was good news and bad: the pelvis wasn’t broken and would heal itself; on the other hand, she had breast cancer.
That put everything on hold, including her film. She had a double mastectomy in August 2017, just five days after being diagnosed, and says she still wonders if she should be making plans for the next two years or the next 40. “The hair makes people feel a bit too comfortable about where I am on my journey with cancer,” she says, pointing to her long dark tresses. “I’m only just coming out on the other end of, ‘I’m living’.”
She’s come out running, though. Having finished her documentary during lockdown earlier this year, she stepped straight into Love in Bloom, a romcom starring Susie Abromeit (Jessica Jones) as a Chicago florist who finds her perfect match (Julian Haig of Riverdale) at her sister’s improvised wedding in the Gold Coast hinterland; it opens nationally on Valentine’s Day. Producer Steve Jaggi hired Rubin to direct, he says, after being “impressed by her candour, can-do attitude and moral compass. She doesn’t stray from what’s right, regardless of the cost.”
Robert Connolly, producer-director of The Dry, has known Rubin for more than a decade; after she helped put him in touch with a US distributor for his 2009 film Balibo, he returned the favour with some informal mentoring. He’s blown away by her energy. “She’s had massive health issues, she’s done this doco, she’s done this feature, she’s a whirlwind,” he says. “She’s a creative person and entrepreneur and a dynamo all wrapped up in one.”
It has all come at a cost, though. As the faux hunting fan Joni Kiser, Rubin received death threats from animal rights activists, and intimidation from the wives of hunters who didn’t like her spending so much time with their husbands. The evening before she revealed the true nature of her mission to hunter Pieter Kriel – a moment captured in her film – she admits she was “scared shitless, I spent the night crying”. Now, with her film finally about to be released and her cover fully blown, she is genuinely concerned she could become a target.
She’s taken steps to make herself difficult to find in the US, and sees the Australian release – which comes ahead of other territories – as a test of what other measures she may need to take. “I’d prefer not to be shot at,” she says. “And I see that as a real risk.”
As our Elsternwick safari comes to an end, I ask Rubin if, knowing what she does now, she would go back and do it again. “No. Not a chance in hell,” she says. “It was such a psychologically draining, emotionally draining, physically draining, fearful experience. On top of which I got injured and then I got cancer. It’s too much.”
But then she stops, and reconsiders. “I believe film and TV is now how people get their information and I’ve done my best to make it a digestible experience,” she says. “If we can create change through entertainment, that’s what we should be focusing on. That’s why I work in this world.”
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