Cinema Review: When Lambs Become Lions | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Wednesday, October 27th, 2021  

When Lambs Become Lions

Studio: Oscilloscope
Directed by Jon Kasbe

Dec 04, 2019 Web Exclusive
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When Lambs Become Lions opens on a roaring fire, or at least that’s what we have to assume. The credits roll out over several shots of a towering plume of smoke, thick black clouds billowing out from a molten orange core. It’s a striking image to start a documentary on, one that feels evasive and pointed. By presenting consequence without instigation, it not only creates atmosphere, but speaks deeply to director Jon Kasbe’s ambivalence towards his subject matter.

The documentary itself centres on the conflict in Northern Kenya between ivory dealers and wildlife rangers. By the time we join the struggle it’s basically a warzone, with both sides armed to the teeth. In a particularly sharp piece of editing we pivot from poachers practicing aiming their poisoned arrows at cacti, to rangers firing their rifles at hauntingly humanoid targets. Either way, their livelihood is on the line. “The poacher is hunting the elephants, and we’re hunting the poacher,” explains a stoic ranger.

Our principal poacher, a man only known as ‘X’, initially presents himself as a minor local kingpin, swanning around his town with all the confidence befitting a beneficent crime lord. Of course, it’s far from the reality of the situation. For a start, X likes to keep his hands clean, admitting openly that he finds killing difficult. Whether that’s a moral decision or a cowardly one only becomes more complicated as Kasbe continues to turn the piece its head.

Despite ostensibly being more moral, our principal ranger, a sharpshooter named Asan, is in a similarly sticky situation. Like X he begins the documentary in a militant fashion, showing only a stern face and little remorse for his targets. When he explains the rangers’ shoot first, ask questions later mentality, there’s no hint of a lie on his face. However, as the issue of delayed wages begins to drain his zeal for the work, his eyes speak to a recognition of the hanging weight of family responsibility and survival.

The revelation that our two focal subjects are cousins is delivered matter of factly — these are small, well-connected communities just struggling to get by. In that sense the smoke signifies the international uproar over the near extinction of the African Elephant, and how easy it is to lose sight of the abject poverty at the fiery root. Though the rangers promise violence and retribution against the hunters (some of which, indeed, we do see play out), there’s a guarded understanding on both sides of the poaching coin.

What makes the moral quagmire all the more consuming is how well-shot the whole endeavour is. Kasbe rarely resorts to simple to-camera explanations, instead framing his subjects against arresting images of the Kenyan bush. In many ways Kasbe’s style is dizzying, more akin to a descent into madness a la Apocalypse Now than your average Very Important Documentary, right down to how he interlays dialogue. Even as events push forward sequentially, there’s a frank poetry to how each person discusses their relationship with family, the wilds, and their finances that leads to frequent moments of mournful beauty.

It’s late on in When Lambs Become Lions when we circle back to the smoke and its cause, finding a far more literal fire than the hazy opening revealed. In a televised statement Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta explains that the plight of the elephant is the plight of Kenya itself, virtue signalling to an incensed international audience as truck after truck of tusks are assembled into grotesque ceremonial pyres. In turn, Kosbe positions us with poachers and rangers alike as the entire sum — $150 million worth — is turned to ash. Regardless of morality, there’s a depravity to burning such riches in front of a country largely struggling to get by.

Should we simply vindicate the poachers then? Of course not. But Kasbe is brave enough to examine why this fire started. This isn’t just a matter of right or wrong, it’s a balanced look at how man’s relationship with his environment has been perverted by the vicious circle of capitalism. It’s also a bitter assessment of Western audiences and our 60-second attention spans, emphasising once more how easy it is to slander and assume without recognising the human stakes present at every level. We must take grave measures to protect the African Elephant, but let’s not downplay our part in the economic strife of Kenya too.

Author rating: 8/10

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Average reader rating: 6/10


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