A commendable addition to the growing number of films centered on children in post-9/11 Islamic societies, “Son of a Lion” packs emotional punch and engaging political discussion into the tale of a sensitive boy who wants to go to school rather than follow his fundamentalist father into the gun-making business. Cast with non-professionals living in the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan, pic reps a promising debut by Aussie helmer Benjamin Gilmour and should roar into plenty of fests following world preem at Pusan. Arthouse distribution beckons locally and offshore niche play is a possibility.
Dusty locale is a home to Pashtuns, an ethnic Afghan group that enjoyed positive Western press while ousting Soviet occupiers from Afghanistan before being reviled as the largest contingent inside the Taliban. Though it’s unclear whether he’s part of the latter regime, widowed father Sher Alam Afridi (Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad) is proud of his record fighting the Europeans and is determined to raise son Niaz (Niaz Khun Shinwari) according to strict Islamic law.
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Eleven years old and painfully aware of being illiterate, the shy boy shows little enthusiasm working at his father’s gun shop and testing the weapons they manufacture by hand. Dutifully running errands that include buying hashish for his grandfather, the lad is happiest visiting Agha Jaan (Agha Jaan), a friendly poet who reads letters written to Niaz from the big city of Peshawar by his cousin Anousha (Anousha Vasif Shinwari).
Scared to confront his father about wanting an education and receiving little support from his traditionalist grandmother (Fazal Bibi), it’s up to Anousha’s open-minded father, Baktiyar Afridi (Baktiyar Ahmed Afridi) to take up the cause. Holding up enrollment papers he’s hopefully obtained, Baktiyar is unable to convince his unyielding brother to sign on the dotted line. Result is a family squabble that finds Niaz running away to Peshawar where he makes a forlorn figure outside a school gate before being taken home by his uncle.
Finely tuned screenplay written by Gilmour in close collaboration with cast members and community representatives balances the domestic conflict with scenes of Sher Alam and his friends discussing the state of things. In tea houses and barbershops, the men express a wide variety of opinions on everything from Osama bin Laden to the war on terror and, inevitably, the regional role of the U.S.
These illuminating insights into how ordinary people in this region view the world deliver a vital understanding of the cultural factors surrounding Niaz’s desire to look outward and better himself.
At the hour mark, the boy musters the courage to tell his father he does not want to do what has been expected of him since birth. Careful not to make a monster of the father, narrative maps out a convincing path for him to form an understanding of the life his son wants to lead.
A pivotal moment arrives when Sher Alam takes a long, hard look at a photo portrait of Niaz holding a rifle; another when he discovers his son has helped save the life of Pite (Khaista Mir), a bully who has tormented and humiliated Niaz.
Key to the film’s success is its simplicity. Gilmour, an ambulance officer by trade, achieves fine results from an untrained cast whose expressive performances make the tale feel authentic at every turn. Nicely framed compositions with a minimum of travelogue add to the feeling. Score by Amanda Brown mixes traditional instruments and modern rhythms to lovely effect. Pristine DV-to-35mm transfer rounds out a pro tech package.