Rhianna Boyle on The Hunter

RHIANNA BOYLE on the hunter

13 November 2014

This is an edited version of a speech Rhianna Boyle gave to introduce the film The Hunter, at LongPlay in Fitzroy, Melbourne in July of 2014. This screening was the third of four in the series Stories in Landscape; Landscape in Stories.

The film The Hunter is based on the book of the same name by Julia Leigh, which was published in 1999. It’s been described by one reviewer as “Australian biotech gothic”, which I think is an apt description – there’s a lot of mist, a concealed corpse, an angry mob, and some dark human emotions set against a dark landscape.

The hunter of the title, played by Willem Dafoe, has been employed by a biotechnology company to find the Tasmanian tiger and extract its DNA. But this is not a conservation project. The story is that the tiger produces a toxin, and the company wants to use the DNA , and the toxin within, for an unspecified military application. (As far as I’m aware, the idea that the Tasmanian tiger produced a toxin is a fictional detail, although male platypuses do have a venomous spur on their back leg, so the idea of a poisonous mammal isn’t completely ridiculous.)

You are probably familiar with the extinction of the Tasmanian tiger. The last known animal – the animal in the famous film footage – died in a Hobart zoo in 1936. There was a government bounty on the tiger scalps because they were believed to be a threat to sheep. There are some tragic details to the case, for example, a recent biomechanical analysis of the tiger’s jaw muscles shows it may not have been strong enough to kill a sheep, and probably preyed on small mammals instead. Also, the last animal died due to cold exposure and neglect, in what may have been a preventable, premature death. These details have added to the mythology of the animal, and it has acquired a cultural symbolism that goes far beyond the sad death of an individual species.

Daniel Nettheim, the director of the film, has said that the tiger “represents our failings as a colonising nation”. Australia currently leads the world in mammal extinctions. We have lost 30 species, or 10 per cent of our total mammal fauna, since Europeans arrived. Most recently, in 2009, we lost the Christmas Island pipistrelle. Tim Flannery wrote in his Quarterly Essay After the Future: Australia’s New Extinction Crisis”, about this particular event, that “the demise of a bat speaks volumes about the human soul”.

But along with the idea that extinct animals are symbols of human failure comes the idea that we can redeem ourselves by bringing extinct species back to life. There are a few examples of miraculous rediscoveries of animals, for example, in Australia, the night parrot and the Tamar wallaby. The Lord Howe Island stick insect hadn’t been seen since the 1940s, but in 2001 it was found clinging to a large rock formation in the middle of the ocean.

But since DNA technology has advanced, you don’t need to find a living animal to bring extinct species back to life. Those in the de-extinction movement advocate using preserved genetic material, injected into the egg of a related species, to produce a clone. So far, there have been attempts to do this with the Pyrenean ibex, the gastric brooding frog, and the woolly mammoth. From 1999 to 2005, the Australian National Museum attempted to do this with the Tasmanian tiger, using genetic material preserved in a pickled pup and in dried specimens, but this and other attempts have failed, mostly due to the degraded quality of the DNA. The tiger project in particular was criticised as being part science, part publicity stunt.

Since the 1980s, it has been legal to patent genes. This essentially means that something that is a natural product becomes private intellectual property. However, this may be changing – last year the biotech company Myriad, which holds the patent on two breast cancer genes, had its patent overturned in the United States Supreme Court, and this may set a precedent that invalidates other genetic patents.

Some characters in the film, like the missing naturalist Jarrah Armstrong, want to find the tiger in order to conserve it, but the mission of the central character subverts this idea. This is a deliberate choice. Julia Leigh, the author of the book, has said that she wants to contradict the idea that if only we could find the tiger we would look after it. The character of the hunter is a return to old, colonial-era values, but with an added layer of emotional detachment. The tiger and its body are irrelevant, because all the hunter wants now is its genetic code.

These issues that the film brings up encourage us to reflect seriously on what it means to lose a species, what it means to have this sort of power over other living things. But overall, this film is a morally and emotionally bleak one, in which the beauty of the landscape and the human warmth of the missing naturalist’s family may or may not be enough to humanise the hunter.