Son of a Lion



Pusan International Film Festival

BUSAN, South Korea -- Set in northern Pakistan in a Pashtun community, "Son of a Lion" is a docudrama that wears its politics on its sleeve in an illustration of life in a true gun culture. The town of Darra Alam Khel is the kind of village that serves as the West's current whipping boy as the source of extremism, but director Benjamin Gilmour's work here shows the more human side of a tetchy equation. Human rights festivals are going to flock to "Son," and ultra-specific niche art house releases aren't out of the question given the currency of the subject matter and Pakistani location.

"Son" focuses on 11-year-old Niaz (Niaz Khan Shinwari) and his simple desire to go to school. His father, Sher Alam (Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad), expects him to help him in the family gun business, and resists both Niaz and his brother Baktiyar's (Baktiyar Ahmed Alfridi) pleas to allow him to enroll in school in Peshawar. Sher Alam sees no need for education, but things change when the local bully, Pite (Khaista Mir), is shot by a local thug.

The film was produced with the assistance of the residents of the area, and after Gilmour had lived in the Northwest Frontier Province for some time: credit is also given to the people of Kohat and Darra Adam Khel. The result is a realist tone that informs the story, performances and visual aesthetic. But it's Niaz's struggle to get an education that serves as the foundation for the story. That too many children are drafted into armies across the globe isn't in dispute, but Niaz's tragedy isn't in his destiny as a soldier. Darra Alam Khel's overt gun industry (gun shops line the streets alongside fruit markets) and the constant sound of gunfire (usually buyers testing the wares) is a reminder of the omnipresence of firearms.

The film's minor technical flaws are compensated for by Gilmour's subtle exploration of the Pashtuns' average, everyday lives: People shop, get haircuts, swim in the lake, and socialize over tea. For all of the indignation viewers might feel at Sher Alam's demands of his son, he's really only asking him to follow in his footsteps, much the same way farmers, doctors, and CEOs hope for the same from their heirs. Sher Alam's biggest crime may lie in refusing to reconcile his product with the consequences of its use -- as Niaz points out.

The performances by the amateur actors are imperfect but empathetic. Alfridi is arresting as the pre-teen who dreams of being able to read and write, and Miskeen Ustad's slow realization that he's losing his son in a way that transcends him leaving home is equally moving. What "Son of a Lion" lacks in nuance it makes up for in sensitivity.

A Carolyn Johnson Films Pty. Ltd., Leapfrog Prods., Australian Film Commission production
Director-screenwriter: Benjamin Gilmour
Producer: Carolyn Johnson
Executive producer: Hayat Khan Shinwari
Director of photography: Haroon John, Benjamin Gilmour
Music: Amanda Brown
Co-producer: Jeff McDonald, Benjamin Gilmour
Editor: Alison McSkimming Croft
Cast: Sher Alam Alfridi
Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad
Niaz Alfridi: Niaz Khan Shinwari
Baktiyar: Baktiyar Ahmed Alfridi
Pite: Khaista Mir
Anousha: Anousha Vasif Shinwari
Agha Jaan: Agha Jaan

Running time -- 92 minutes
No MPAA rating