'When Lambs Become Lions': Film Review

Courtesy of Oscilloscope
Has the dramatic tension of a Hollywood thriller.
11/22/2019

Jon Kasbe's documentary chronicles the struggles of an African poacher and a wildlife ranger dedicated to stopping the illegal profession.

Few documentaries feel as cinematic as Jon Kasbe's debut effort examining the conflicts between poachers and wildlife rangers in Kenya. When Lambs Become Lions takes a decidedly humanistic view toward its hot-button topic, focusing on several figures whose relationships prove surprisingly complex. Gorgeously photographed and edited, the film has the look and pacing of a thriller, albeit one with near-Shakespearean dramatic dimensions.

The filmmaker spent three years embedded full-time with his subjects. His efforts have certainly paid off in terms of access, especially considering that two of them are operating on the wrong side of the law. They are a poacher referred to only as "X," and his younger associate Lukas, who handles the dirty work of killing the elephants they hunt with poison-drenched arrows. X is unrepentant about his chosen profession, reveling in the money it brings him and his family. He styles himself purely as a middleman, declaring, "I never do the killings myself."

On the other side of the spectrum is Asan, a ranger who struggles with financial issues since government paychecks have been less than forthcoming and his wife is pregnant with their second child. His work is dangerous, as made evident by the funeral of a colleague killed in the line of duty, and his family has become concerned for his safety. Asan knows the strategies of the poachers all too well, since he used to be one himself before having a crisis of conscience. He also happens to be related to X; the two are cousins, and have remained close despite their very different professions.

"Out here, we're all hunters," Asan says resignedly. "Poachers hunt the elephants, and we hunt the poachers." The rangers, outfitted in camouflage uniforms and heavily armed, don't fool around. When it comes to their human prey, they operate under a shoot-to-kill policy. "Better to kill the poacher and spare the elephant," one of them comments.

The degree of candor afforded by the central characters prove extraordinary as the documentary captures many intimate moments, both personal and professional. Toward the end of the film, Asan is seen breaking down in tears, overwhelmed by the pressures he faces on a daily basis. Indeed, there are times when the doc has an almost scripted, narrative feel, enhanced by the atmospheric lensing and West Dylan Thordson's emotive music score. One of the most powerful scenes features X and Lukas excitedly happening upon a herd of some 50 elephants, including adults and babies, slowly walking across the African plain in all their majesty.

The film, which includes Matthew Heineman (City of Ghosts, Cartel Land) among its executive producers, adopts an objective viewpoint, refraining from moralizing about the poachers' decimation of the African elephant population and letting X advance his arguments that he does what he does out of financial necessity, since there are few decently paying jobs available in his country. Of course, it helps that we never actually see him and his cohorts plying their deadly trade; although there are a few fleeting still photographs of elephant corpses, there is no disturbing footage of them being killed. (The press notes inform us that, while When Lambs Become Lions "is committed to showcasing the plight of elephants, it does NOT depict animals of any kind being harmed.") While the restraint is admirable, it could be argued that the doc is whitewashing its subject.

The deadly toll that the poachers take is made clear by footage of the Kenyan president announcing a crackdown in a televised press conference in which he declares, "Ivory is worthless unless it is on our elephants." To make his point, he has his men set fire to a gigantic pile of confiscated ivory tusks, worth some $150 million in total. With that kind of money at stake, it's clear that the problem won't be going away anytime soon.

Production companies: The Documentary Group, Fusion Media Group, Project Earth
Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories
Director-director of photography: Jon Kasbe
Producers: Innbo Shim, Tom Yellin, Andrew Harrison Brown
Executive producers: Matthew Heineman, Isaac Lee, Erick Douat, Nicola Ibarguen, Juan Rendon, Daniel Eilemberg
Editors: Frederick Shanahan, Jon Kasbe, Caitlyn Greene
Composer: West Dylan Thordson

79 minutes