Screen Editor Gethin Morgan reviews When Lambs Become Lions, which had its international premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest on 8 June and is nominated for the Environmental Award.

First-time feature director Jon Kasbe takes us into the extraordinary territory of Northern Kenya, where we follow the lives of two men on opposing sides of the ivory trade.

X is a confident, charismatic poacher. He doesn’t do the killing (his partner Lukas does the dirty work) but he is the brains behind the operation. Meanwhile Asan, who happens to be X’s cousin, is a ranger desperately trying to provide for his family.

The moral ambiguities of this film are remarkable. It has not been made to make a point or document an opinion. Rather its purpose is merely to show the lives of the people involved in the ivory trade. While X has no qualms about killing majestic elephants for profit, he is providing for a young family in a poverty-stricken country. On the other hand, the rangers may be protecting animals and upholding the law, but they shoot to kill any poachers they see in the wild.

The single best aspect of this documentary is without a doubt the characters. Asan has a strong moral compass and dedicates his life to providing for his family. Those two characteristics clash at times in a fascinating way, as he is forced to decide how far he is willing to bend his moral code for family.

X however is the real phenomenon. Completely assured in everything he does and composed at all times, he is dangerously charismatic and oozes cool. Watching him at times is reminiscent of watching a classic Scorsese gangster strut his stuff. He even jokes at one point that Robert De Niro is “the best” and, quite amusingly, you can tell that kind of character has influenced the way X carries himself.

He’s so likeable that it’s easy to forget he plays a huge part in such a disgusting industry. This is a true anti-hero who ends up having an amazing arc.

This documentary almost feels like a fictional drama at times. The characters are so interesting, the direction so unforced that we’re just transported into the world of these people. A tense, tick-tocking score and really stunning visuals also help in making it really cinematic. The camera quality and crispness of image is so good that it’s hard to believe they were shooting this on the go.

Kasbe is a filmmaker to keep a serious eye on if his debut is anything to go by. He spent around 18 months over a four-year period living with X and Asan in Kenya, shot over 700 hours of footage and managed to deliver one of the purest, most nuanced pieces of documentary filmmaking you’re likely to see this year.

When Lambs Become Lions screens again on Sunday 10 June at 7.15pm in the Curzon Cinema.   

5 Stars

Image Credit: Sheffield Doc/Fest

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