Desperation collides with duty in “When Lambs Become Lions,” a docudrama set in the wildlife parks of Northern Kenya.
That’s where poachers and National Reserve Game Rangers play for keeps in their struggle over Africa’s last elephants.
Jon Kasbe’s film depicts an arid land where the locals struggle to survive, where seeing the benefits of eco-tourism is difficult and where the president’s words about protecting “out national heritage,” that “To us, ivory is worthless unless it is on our elephants” isn’t a view shared by all.
We meet “X,” an ivory selling middleman who brags to the camera crew following him that he is “like a king” in his corner of Kenya. He can feed his family, spoil his kids with presents.
“I never do the killing myself,” he says (in English and Swahili with English subtitles). That’s what his hired hand Lukas is for, to mix up the toxic frog poison that he dips his arrows in, paralyzing elephants so that he cut their tusks off before they’ve finished dying.
A few still photographs note the grisly, barbaric nature of the work. But on land where nothing can be easily cultivated, what are poor people to do? X can’t drive by a small herd on the road without asking Lukas, “How much do those tusks weigh?” He’s got buyers who crave the white gold.
The men who stand between X and Lukas and the elephants are the Rangers, men with a measure of empathy for the wildlife and a ruthlessness all their own that they call on to preserve it.
Asan is one of them, a young father with another baby on the way who knows that “Out here, we’re all hunters…Poachers hunt the elephants, and we hunt the poachers.”
Lukas thinks “these Rangers are not human,” pointing to river rocks where he says Rangers tie prisoners up “so that the crocodiles can eat them.”
When the Rangers fall upon some poachers, the pummeling and kicking — “Confess the truth!” — is the “good cop” approach. The unit commander acknowledges that when they catch poachers red-handed, the verdict is “bullet on the spot.”
“When Lambs Become Lions” follows the two points of view — in one scene, X waves off the camera crew as a Ranger doesn’t want to be filmed — as we learn that Asan and X are cousins. And the pressures of their environment and their obligations to their families will either bring them into conflict, or lure them into an alliance.
X knows just the right questions to ask.
“Do you have enough money?”
Kasbe says he spent four years embedding himself with real poachers and Rangers engaged in this conflict, and conjures up a film that plays much closer to a thriller than the “documentary” he insists it is.
The performances, the dialogue, the melodrama of rising suspense as X’s buyer pressures him for more product even as the Rangers close in, feel scripted and performed. Asan jokes to his wife that his son, play-acting with a stuffed dog toy that he’s “killed,” says “If he becomes a poacher, I will have to kill him!”
The camera placement is feature film dramatic with perfect lighting — blocked, maybe even story-boarded.
Perhaps there is a braggart poacher who’d love to be followed by a documentary crew without fear of discovery or prosecution. The more logical conclusion is that ex-poachers and ex-Rangers were involved, staging domestic arguments over overdue paychecks, panicking when nearly caught in the act.
So I’d bet good money that “When Lambs Become Lions” is a solid, engrossing docudrama — staged and acted — not, as its director claims, a documentary. That still doesn’t rob the film of its simple power, the suspense of wondering just who will turn on whom, and if elephants will be killed in the bargain.
MPAA Rating: Unrated, with violence, some profanity, smoking.
Credits: Directed by Jon Kasbe. An Oscilloscope Labs release.
Running time: 1:16