Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Jon Kasbe (Mipso in Japan, A Beautiful Waste) followed the subjects of his award-winning feature doc When Lambs Become Lions over the course of a three year period. It was a journey toward attaining both remarkable access and trust across the ethical and ideological spectrum as he became implanted in their daily lives and was able to document and explore the fullness of the conservation divide.
Opening in Los Angeles on November 22nd followed by a New York release on December 6th along with additional dates, When Lambs Become Lions is a mesmerizing release from indie distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories that takes the viewer inside the Kenyan bush where a small-time ivory dealer struggles to stay on top while government forces mobilize to destroy his trade and protect their few remaining elephants. However, the wildlife rangers range from passionate about their cause to frustrated over their lack of consistent pay and when this ivory dealer, who goes by X in the film, propositions his younger cousin, one of the wildlife rangers, both end up seeing a possible lifeline.
When Lambs Become Lions is a beautiful film that tackles a difficult subject that has seldom been infused with the human element as both poachers and rangers face existential crises.
What is the value of elephant life relative to human life? Can we understand these hunters who will risk death, arrest, and the moral outrage of the world to provide for their families?
When Lambs Become Lions opens with and centers around X, who is delivering his illegally obtained ivory to a buyer as we're introduced to him. It's not necessarily a job that he wants, but it's one that he regards as his best option. It's a swagger sort of job, a job well above the usual menial labor jobs available with hints of a gangsta mentality permeating X's existence. X doesn't do the killing himself. He's a middleman of sorts, existing somewhere between those who do the killing, in his case that most often being a young man who's named Lukas here, and the buyers willing to pay top dollar for the ivory.
X's cousin, Asan, is a former poacher who has repented of his ways and taken up the cause of conservation with fervency and passion in his role as a wildlife ranger. While it would seem this would cause an irrevocable conflict between the two, Kasbe brings vividly to life how their relationship survives and their family dynamics play out. There's no question that Asan is vulnerable here, especially as government payments lag behind, yet Kasbe, for the most part, avoids portraying either side as completely guilty or completely innocent.
While it's hard to watch When Lambs Become Lions without questioning Kasbe's role in documenting everything that unfolds here, by film's end it's apparent that the story that Kasbe documents is an important one that provides a needed perspective that isn't being portrayed well in the media. It's clear that both sides have their reasons for doing what they do and the real question becomes "Can the elephants really be saved?"
To his and the film's credit, Kasbe avoids any depiction of actual elephant killing throughout the film's 79-minute running time. Instead, much of When Lambs Become Lions is spent capturing the humans behind the issue and the institutions that complicate matters on both sides. There's a certain brutality present on both sides as the poachers hunt elephants, the wildlife rangers hunt poachers, and both sides seem more than willing to kill their targets. The poachers pride themselves on a certain moral center as they largely resist violence toward humans, while the same certainly cannot be said for wildlife rangers who would potentially qualify here in the U.S. as vigilantes.
When Lambs Become Lions is a truly beautiful film, Kasbe's own lensing magnificently capturing the often nighttime scenes while also never letting go of the beauty of the Kenyan landscape. The film's editing is crisp and precise, lending the film an urgency that often makes it feel like we're watching everything in the here and now. Music by West Dylan Thordson is vibrant and companions the film quite nicely.
For those particularly concerned about conservation issues, When Lambs Become Lions is practically a must-see film though its depiction may infuriate and frustrate. The beauty of the film itself can't mask the horrifying nature of everything that's unfolding and the incredible challenge we have in making it all stop if elephants are, indeed, to be saved.
For more information on When Lambs Become Lions, visit the film's official website linked to in the credits.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic