By adopting a cinematic low-glide, more fictional-like account instead of a conventional, fact-laden deep dive, documentary film-maker and cinematographer Jon Kasbe crafts a striking, evocative vision of, and insight into, the lives of small time ivory dealer “X” and his struggling ranger cousin Asan, as both battle family/industry hardships in their North Kenyan village.
Kasbe’s film opens on a great flowering smoke plume before introducing us to poacher X as he snaps off tusks from dead elephants at night. X considers himself blessed with a “sweet tongue and no fear in his heart” and believes he is “like the king” in his community who “lives by his own rules, but others think “his choices will catch up with him”. Meanwhile, X’s cousin Asan is a National Reserve Game Ranger and dutiful parent with a second child on the way, whose job it is to track down poachers like his cousin.
When Lambs Become Lions’ arresting imagery captures stunning Kenyan landscapes, deprived communities and slighter life aspects which, when combined, contribute to a prevailing refined and edifying style, relaying riveting cultural insights. Shots of kids playing football as cats gnaw on cadavers while sparrows and chickens tuck into discarded scraps, shape our view and understanding of the village’s desperation.
Poachers prepare poisoned arrows to paralyse elephants then pray prior to hunting them which suggests they are God fearing, but are they praying for forgiveness or a successful hunt? One poacher refuses to crush a cockroach because he used to play with them as a kid. Meanwhile, X’s “need” to poach seems inherently crucial to him, but he is not doing it to survive, just to make life better for his family. Yet the sounds and still images (shown by a poacher on his camera) of injured elephants makes one wonder if X feels anything for them at all.
It is Kasbe’s impartial stance and film-making savvy which also makes WLBL so potent and compelling. Kasbe revels (refreshingly) in the grey areas between good, bad, right, wrong, uncovering fear and necessity for vital context, but doesn’t try to govern our emotions or saturate WLBL with viewpoints and politics. The characters’ internal and external conflicts aren’t utilised, shaped or elevated by talking head interviews or orchestral overkill, to make viewers feel something superficial or enforced.
Kasbe allows the environment, characters and milieu to flourish and inform WLBL with a wonderful realism. X and Asan impart, seemingly without fear of the cameras or how they’ll be perceived, revealing both good and bad facets about themselves. Footage of rangers catching/beating poachers, then raising concerns about their lack of pay and crying due to exhaustion/concern for their families presents multifaceted traits and parallels. A curious wonder is also instilled by composer West Dylan Thordson’s soaring soundscapes adorned by clanking drums and tolling pots which could be a discombobulated tin man rummaging through rubble while half cut on Castrol GTX.
When Lambs Become Lions offers enthralling insights into a desolate land and trades where two men, bonded by blood, operate in opposing industries and do their best to survive. Kasbe’s film captivatingly captures a detached community, trade and time with character conflicts adding emotional substance while instilling wonder. Kasbe doesn’t preach, take sides or provide depth beyond that which is revealed by the subjects and setting. This makes WLBL feel raw, beautiful, immediate, beguiling, sometimes quite slight but also wild and alive.