Planet in Focus 2018: When Lambs Become Lions


When Lambs Become Lions is so well shot and cleverly-structured that you’d almost think it was a prestigious independent drama instead of a documentary. In fact, the conceit is almost too good to be true. Of course, it is true, making this story about Kenyan poachers and rangers a fascinating documentary in addition to an artfully-shot, intense thriller.

Jon Kasbe’s When Lambs Become Lions is the story of a poacher and a ranger in Northern Kenya. Kasbe gives the men the pseudonyms of “X” for the poacher and “Asan” for the ranger and follows them in their daily routines. In the process, he uncovers the human stories behind the headlines of poaching and animal conservation in Kenya’s game reserves and national parks.

Kasbe is given unprecedented access here. Not only does he come along with X as he meets his Somali hunter, “Lukas,” who kills the elephants using poisoned arrows and does the dirty work of actually dispatching the endangered animals. He also follows them into the bush as Lukas spots an elephant buck, putting himself in danger of reprisal from the rangers who often shoot armed poachers on sight. At one point, X says “Those rangers aren’t human” to describe the violent response to poaching.

X doesn’t always go in the bush. He’s more of a middle man, contracting Lukas to kill the animals and then handing over the ivory to unseen buyers. The job is illegal and incredibly dangerous, but it affords X with money that’s hard to come by in economically-ravaged Northern Kenya. In his own words he lives like a king, which is worlds away from Asan, who hasn’t been paid in two months and spends his days in the bush away from his pregnant wife and young son. One day, we watch as Asan gets into a brief firefight with poachers, and other days, we see him sitting bored in the sun, worrying about money problems and troubles with his wife.

For both X and Asan, their decisions come down to money and they could easily be in each other’s shoes. In fact, we learn that Asan was a poacher for a brief moment in the past. There’s an easy blend between lawman and criminal here, an elemental dynamic that gives the film a classic cops-and-robbers edge, like Michael Mann’s Heat where the only thing separating the two sides is blind luck. Kasbe leans into this dynamic at every turn, humanizing both men and personalizing a conflict that’s always presented as simplistically black-and-white in the public discourse. When Lambs Become Lions refuses to simplify the subject matter. It lives in the greys and complicates easy assumptions.

The film’s focus on shadows and grit isn’t only thematic; it comes out in the cinematography as well. Kasbe is the cinematographer in addition to director and he shoots the film in anamorphic widescreen and favours narrow depth of focus and desaturated colours. He favours long, handheld tracking shots or still frames that are meticulously-arranged, like still lives of this part of Kenya. In other moments, he uses aerial footage to zoom over the landscape while West Dylan Thordson’s ominous music drones on the soundtrack. The disturbing effect is similar to Denis Villeneuve’s approach in Sicario, where the Mexico-US border becomes a landscape of bloodshed and doom. In When Lambs Become Lions, it’s the Northern Kenyan bush that holds death for human and beast alike, which contrasts with the usual presentation in nature docs about life in the East African bush. The entire visual approach is not the typical documentary shooting style, but it lends the film an intensity that is effective from the opening moments.

There’s an archetypal appeal to this kind of morality tale/crime narrative; Asan sums it up nicely when he says, “The poacher is hunting the elephants and we’re hunting the poacher.” It satisfies the conventions of a crime drama but also shows the complexity of the subject’s economic aspect and makes poaching another shaded cinematic criminal enterprise instead of the simplistic moral violation that it’s presented as in Western media.

However, I do have a few reservations about the work. For one, does Kasbe have moral culpability in depicting what he does here? Specifically, is he complicit in X’s crimes in order to get remarkable footage? As well, some scenes are so well-structured that I wonder whether Kasbe coached the men beforehand in order to get a better shot or more dramatic moment to document. Of course, these sorts of questions about the relationship between filmmaker and subject are not unique to When Lambs Become Lions; they’re pertinent to all documentary filmmaking and impossible to resolve in a short review.

But regardless of whether Kasbe overstepped the bounds of documentary filmmaking ethics or not, the film itself is remarkable as an examination of the complex moral issue of poaching and the harsh economic realities of life in Northern Kenya. Few recent documentaries have had its visceral and narrative punch.

8 out of 10

When Lambs Become Lions (2018, USA)

Directed by Jon Kasbe.