When Lambs Become Lions is an astonishing film documenting the lives of two men on opposing sides of the ivory trade – X (the poacher) and his cousin Asan (the ranger). The film had its international premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest and is nominated for the Environmental Award.
Screen Editor Gethin Morgan sat down for a chat with the director, Jon Kasbe, who talked at length about the documentary and his filmmaking process.
So, first off, tell us about When Lambs Become Lions…
When Lambs Become Lions started with a really simple idea. I felt like the conservation sphere had been so covered in film and articles and books but I didn’t feel like there was a tonne of content that was showing it from the perspective of the locals on the ground, specifically the poachers themselves. So the whole thing originated from the idea of; let’s try to understand who they are and what they do and why they do it.
It’s your first solo feature film.
This film started out as a short-doc and, for me, that helped a lot because I found myself not trying to necessarily force content into it too early to make it into something that it wasn’t… instead, it had the chance to just be a short and then organically grow into something bigger when the time was right and when it made sense, which was great.
At what point did you realise it was going to be feature-length?
It was probably about a year in. What shifted it was the moment when X told me that Asan, the wildlife ranger, was his cousin. That’s when I realised ‘wow’ there’s a lot more here to be unpacked. This is way more complicated than I thought. I just kept realising that the more I learnt about what was going on, the more I realised I didn’t know. And that not only gave me the thought that it could become a feature, but also gave me the desire for it because I wanted to spend more time there. I wanted to try to understand them better, to see more of their world and their choices, and spend more time trying to understand all those things.
Has the ivory trade always interested you or was it this very specific story that grabbed you?
I wouldn’t say the ivory trade at the beginning is what drew me in, neither did the idea of conservation. I’m not a conservationist. I’m not an activist. I didn’t come into this with my own message or agenda. This wasn’t a film I was trying to use to spread things that I believed in.
I’d worked on three other projects in Kenya before this. So I had friends in the area that were telling me about what was going on. I had one friend in particular who just said “come and meet X. You gotta meet X.”
So I did and it was really in that meeting that I felt a real desire to spend time there and follow him. He wasn’t at all what I expected. As we spent more and more time talking on the phone and then eventually meeting, I realised he’s not ashamed of what he did, you know? He doesn’t see it as problematic.
One of the first things he told me was “we kill elephants but at least we don’t kill humans. That’s what the rangers do. I’d never kill a human. I could never do something like that.” And so that reversal of expectations and shift in my mind-set of what is right and wrong and understanding the space in between was fascinating to me. I found myself constantly thinking about it. For me that was my motivation, my driving factor. It wasn’t trying to save the elephants or to spread my message.
It’s a really character driven piece. Is that something you actively look for in your subject matter?
Definitely. I like to start with character and let the story evolve. Rather than trying to identify a story before it happens. When you’re shooting vérité film it’s really, really hard to know what’s gonna happen and so trying to plot that out before it has is, I think, problematic for a lot of reasons. One, because there’s no way to know and, two, you don’t ever want to get in a situation where your characters feel you trying to control something or influence the story.
I think that’s a really sticky situation to be in. I try to find characters that I fall in love with, that confuse me, challenge me, that I can’t stop thinking about. People that I know things are gonna happen to. There are people that things don’t happen to and people that things do happen to. With X, Lukas [X’s partner] and Asan I could tell very early on that these are people things happen to. They are gonna go through things, they feel things, are in touch with who they are, or aren’t in touch with who they are and are in denial. Interesting things like that made them visual and interesting to be around.
X in particular is really fascinating. The way he carries himself is so assured and composed. The way he walks and talks looks like he bases himself on a Scorsese gangster or something.
Do you think he had a bit of a front?
Definitely. Yes, yes, yes. Especially at the beginning. When you pull the curtain back and think about what’s going on, I’m coming into this place as an outsider with a camera and I’m choosing one of the cockier guys in the area to follow. He got a lot of joy out of the community seeing him being profiled.
At the same time it is who he is. In some of the initial shoots I did with him I was questioning him as a character because he was so masculine and so present as this boss figure that it felt almost performative at times. To the point where I didn’t know if I believed this guy is who he’s acting like.
So I put the camera down for about a month and hung out with him and I realised even when the camera isn’t there he’s still that way. That’s who he is. He’s got this masculine performance with everyone and that’s also part of his job. He has to give this sense of confidence at all times because he’s the link that’s convincing everyone in the process of killing these creatures that it’s gonna be ok.
How close did your relationship with those guys get?
Very close. I mean, I worked on this film for about four years and I spent about a year and a half in the field shooting. When I was there I was usually living with them, sleeping at their houses. And when I wasn’t there we talked every single day, about everything. It’s interesting, you see the film and we know so much about these guys but when you pull back the curtain, they know just as much about me.
Part of the process was putting their relationship before the film. And I don’t think the film could’ve gotten as far as it did in terms of its access without putting their relationship first. I can’t tell you the number of moments and shots and scenes I didn’t get on camera because I was putting their relationship first. A big part of my process was giving them a sense of ownership and control over what we were doing, because this wasn’t my story to tell. This was their story to tell and I wanted them to feel comfortable about it and in support of what we were doing.
You’re the DP (director of photography) as well, was it essentially you and a camera? Or did you have a crew?
At times I did but a lot of the time I didn’t. With a film that has limited access, often bringing in additional people just wasn’t really an option. As they grew more comfortable, as the community began to except me and the project more and more I was able to bring in a fixer at times and a second shooter at times, which ended up being really important for some of the two-sided scenes we have in the film, because I’d go out with X on a hunt and I’d want a camera with the rangers to see them react when they found out what was going on.
I would have loved to have done that throughout the whole thing. It never hurts to have another camera floating around, in a different scene with a different character. But it was just tricky.
What challenges do you have minute-to-minute shooting live on your own? How many things are running through your head?
It changed throughout the process. During the first year of shooting there was a lot of that. We were figuring out not only what was gonna happen but also the visual style. How we’re gonna address movement, shake, focus. We pulled a lot of references for this and a lot of those were narrative films. Both in terms of the look, how they were visually approaching subject, but also structure. In terms of the look I knew I wanted it to feel like a narrative. I knew I didn’t want people to feel like they were in a doc. But at the same time I wanted people to feel that they were there and to recognise that everything they were seeing was raw and real and happening in real time.
Once you’ve been shooting for a while it becomes instinctual. It’s always instinctual but you kind of fall into an autopilot mode, which can sound bad but in a lot of situations it was good because I didn’t want to be thinking about framing or focus. I wanted to be thinking about the moment and what the character was feeling, making sure I was representing that in the most honest way. One scene in particular when Asan and his wife are fighting. We didn’t see it coming, it just kind of hit me, but I remember when it did happen I wasn’t even aware I was shooting it. As I was filming it felt like I was just watching it. It wasn’t until afterwards I was like “did I hit record?”, and thankfully I had. That’s the place I always try to get to.
It’s funny you say you approached it like a narrative film because it does feel like you’re watching a narrative film. There’s very little exposition. Barely any written text, no narration and even the interviews are more emotion than exposition. Was that very deliberate to make it as naturalistic as possible?
Yeah. I remember when I was trying to pick the right editor for the film I told them going in, this is going to be an extremely hard edit. If we don’t see it we’re probably not gonna use it. I did so many interviews with them [X, Lukas and Asan]. I interviewed each of them like 10 times and they’d go anywhere between 2 to 6 hours. That was really more about finding emotion in the interview, rather than getting information or context.
We didn’t want to be told how to feel or what had happened, we wanted to see it ourselves, rather than letting it feel like a traditional doc – many of those have been made and I didn’t feel we needed more, especially on this issue in this space in the media.
I find it a much more emotional and striking experience. I wanted people to feel like they were there and, with some of the traditional side – talking heads and lots of context and exposition – you don’t feel like you’re there. You feel like you’re being told information. I wanted people to come away having felt something.
You shot a lot of footage and the film’s style requires the images to tell the full story. What was the editing process like?
When we started the edit we had 700 hours of footage and that’s a lot of content to go through. And it was tricky because we’d put these parameters up for ourselves. We knew we didn’t want to be explaining things, we wanted to see things. There was a lot of interesting stuff that we’d covered half-visually, or not-at-all-visually.
So there was a lot of picking our battles and finding the scenes that showed what we wanted to show. That hit you in an emotional space while also showing what their life is really like. Then finding the pieces of interview audio that were absolutely necessary. I say that quickly and concisely but that took months and months of time. In the last two weeks we took out a fourth of the voice over. And I stand by it. I think it was the right thing to do because it lets people live in the visuals and feel like you’re with them rather than just hearing information. I think that’s something documentaries should be doing more.
When you first went into that edit suite, did you have a strong idea of what the story was?
I had a general sense, which was what I’d seen happen over the last three years. I came into a world where X and Lukas were in charge and confident and felt on top. By the end they no longer felt that way. That was the change I’d seen. So the general arc we had a sense of. In terms of how the ivory burn or X’s relationship with his son would play into that, those are all things I wasn’t sure about and we had to try and see how they felt. But the general arc we had a pretty strong sense of.
Like you said, you went into it with an openness and non-bias. Now that you’ve finished do you have much of a stance on the moral ambiguities in the film?
It’s a good question. The more I learn the more I realise I don’t know. The other thing is that I didn’t come into this project trying to understand it from a holistic perspective. I’m just focusing on the perspectives of three guys that are living it daily. So my understanding of the situation is skewed to the way they see the world.
The one thing all three of those guys agreed on is that rangers should be treated better. If the rangers were treated better, given proper equipment and paid properly, there’d be way less poaching.
The other thing with this film is I found myself understanding why X and Lukas were doing it. I found myself on hunts with them understanding what it meant for them if they got a kill. I understood what the money was gonna go towards. When you know that and when you’ve felt that and seen it, it’s a very conflictive state. We’re doing something illegal here and I don’t want it to happen but, at the same time, I want you to have the money you need to support your family and get through the month. And that was a really compelling feeling.
It wasn’t something I knew going in I was going to achieve but the moment I felt that, I knew it was important the film gave that to other people as well. At the end of the day if conservationists want to protect the elephants and take care of the animals then they need to start thinking about the people. Until the conversation shifts in that direction I think it’ll be really, really tough.
Where are you taking the film next? Is it getting a wide release?
I’m not sure where it’s going next. Right now we’re talking to distributors. It’s going well. I just want to find the right home for it. It’s a really sensitive film and we want to be really careful with how it’s positioned when it’s put out there and make sure we find a partner who understands that and cares about it.
Are you looking for a wide release? Maybe streaming?
Hopefully theatrical and streaming. I’d love to do both.
What next for you? Anything in the pipeline?
I have three ideas. I’m excited about one of them. They’re all very early but we’ll hopefully start shooting end of this year, early next, if one of them feels right.
No rush, though.
I think with documentary you have to be really careful because you’re working with real people and putting them on your timeline is the wrong way to approach it. I prefer to build slower and give control to the characters. Let them define what happens when. I don’t think you can rush these things and do it in a raw, authentic way.
We look forward to seeing whatever comes next! Congratulations on the film and thanks so much for talking to us!
Read our review of When Lambs Become Lions http://forgetoday.com/culture/2018/06/08/review-when-lambs-become-lions/
Image Credit: Sheffield Doc/Fest