When Lambs Become LionsReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/21/19 23:42:29
SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2019: More than once during "When Lambs Become Lions", I wondered how Jon Kasbe even make this movie. It feels like it shouldn't be possible, requiring the filmmakers to not just embed themselves with criminals and law enforcement simultaneously but for there to be connections and the story to actually connect . How can it be a documentary even if it does have a fair chunk of reenactment footage (which, for all I know, it doesn't)?It tells the parallel stories of two cousins: Asan, a wilderness ranger in North Kenya, and "X", a poacher working intersecting territory. X is mostly a businessman, with a partner named Lukas who does the actual hunting; by his count, he has felled 16 elephants on his own and more with a team. There are customers waiting for tusks, making X put pressure on Lukas, while Asan is and his colleagues have not been paid for a while, and with a pregnant wife at home, this is the sort of situation where a man might take a little money to let his cousin know where the elephants are.
That's the part of the story that feels most like a fiction film's plot, and it contains the moment when events seem a little bit staged, like Asan and X have lines to get out as they talk to each other. More likely, it's an example of how awkward it can be to add someone new to a relationship - both men have built up a specific rapport with Kasbe and his crew, and now there's this other person added to the mix. In moments like that, you're also not just doing your job and demonstrating things, but potentially changing the direction of the movie - and, let's not forget, potentially committing a crime on-camera. It's likely a weird moment for everyone, so it probably should be strange for the audience as well.
That moment aside, the film feels both real and dramatic. This part of Africa and work these men do may be a world away from most viewers, but Kasbe show the all-too-understandable tensions of their everyday lives throughout and makes sure that the specific details that arise from them make sense as a result. In "X", the poacher at the center of the film, he's got a compelling figure, the sort of charismatic gangster in a specialized trade that you normally have to make up as an antihero. There's a fascinating, uneasy relationship with his partner; Lukas is a taciturn man whose leanness winds up playing into more than just him being a natural hunter. Asan is not quite as magnetic, but he's easy enough to relate to and his being an average guy rather than having that particular sort of charisma is part of why they're each where they are
Kasbe spends a lot of time focusing on them, but he certainly doesn't ignore the world around them, moving seamlessly from city to village to wilderness, showing both their individual and shared atmosphere. The wilderness is what's going to be striking in a trailer, of course, but how he shoots those bits is often most telling, - they're beautiful but not in the majestic and ennobling way that nature documentaries strive for, instead feeling like a day at a unique office. It doesn't decrease the spiritual weight given to the elephants at all - Kasbe never frames them so that they're diminished, and whether by how Asan doesn't like going to parts of the forest where they've been found dead or how people look at them, they've got spiritual weight - but he also keeps them from feeling like this exotic thing rather than part of Kenya.They're such that one can never truly develop sympathy for those who prey upon them, even if one does eventually understand how it seemingly becomes inevitable. It's a heck of a striking thing to see in action rather than at a remove or fictionalized, and Kasabe doesn't let the subject matter down.
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