When Lambs Become Lions Review
Documentary filmmaker Jon Kasbe spent years embedding himself within the ivory trade in Northern Kenya in order to win the trust of his subjects. It took the director and his team four years to piece together When Lions become Lambs and it has resulted in a deeply nuanced and, at times, incredibly tense 75-minute documentary. What it manages to do is question what we think we know about elephant poaching and invites us to consider the economic factors underpinning the trade.
Kasbe follows the narratives of a small-time poacher simply known as ‘X’ and a nature reserve ranger called Asan. These are two men navigating the poverty-stricken landscape of a region that offers no real long-term work prospects beyond becoming a reserve ranger, although as Asan discovers receiving regular pay for an official role can be just as hard to come by. Instead of focussing solely on the animals being hunted, Kasbe looks at the ‘war’ being waged by both sides and the struggle to survive shared by all.
When we are first introduced to X he is hardly the most sympathetic of characters, although his initial hard stance (“I have no fear in my heart”) softens later in the film as we learn more about his family and personal motivations. He distances himself from the slaying of elephants and relies on close alley Lukas and his team to hunt, kill and retrieve the ivory. In the grand scheme of things X is a minor operator but comes under increasing pressure from his frustrated buyer after a number of kills are thwarted by an ever-growing presence of rangers out in the field.
Using an observational approach Kasbe continues to switch perspectives between that of X and his ranger cousin Asan. Life out in the Kenyan forests is akin to the Wild West at times, with gun fire regularly exchanged, fatigue-wearing rangers killed in the line of duty and little mercy shown when poachers are picked-up. The lack of restraint shown by the rangers is likely exacerbated by the fact many have families to support and have gone months without pay (their manager’s lump it or like it response doesn’t offer much comfort). Asan’s wife is set to give birth and the strain of providing for his family challenges his beliefs about placing the lives of elephants above those of their hunters.
Time spent away from efforts to source money emphasises their humble lifestyles and the poverty shared by the local community. In doing so Kasbe adds further context to the hardship faced by many to a maintain a regular income. In essence, X and Asan are two sides of the same coin whose principles force them onto opposing paths. Yet the tourist trade is crucial to Kenya’s economy and the commodification of wild animals in such an unbalanced society means some morals remain more of a luxury than others.
Aided by West Dylan Thordson’s evocative score, When Lambs Become Lions at times feels closer to a nonfiction thriller than a traditional documentary thanks to its involving, cinematic presentation. That tension can also be felt when both parties are entrenched in tracking down their respective targets (Lukas mentions that after capture some poachers have been fed to crocodiles). Kasbe has been able to frame key moments of these men’s lives due to the time taken to integrate himself into their world, with everything revealed raw and in the moment. No animals are filmed being attacked or harmed, although during one particularly gripping chase scene you can hear the pained cry of a shot elephant as it falls into a nearby river.
Around the midway point we hear Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta announce his determination to wipe out poaching once and for all as $150 million worth of captured tusks are publicly burned. It’s a strong message no right minded person could disagree with but you have to wonder what sort of attention is being paid by the government towards the plight of those who feel they have no choice but to pursue this line of ‘work’. After all, there is a limit to what retributive punishment is able to fix. The grey area between who is right and wrong feels like it has grown ten-fold by the end of the film and anyone from this part of the world sitting down to watch shouldn’t feel they have the right to pass judgement either.
When Lambs Become Lions is available in select cinemas on February 14, before arriving on VOD from February 28.