“For us, ivory is worthless unless it is on our elephants,” says Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta in a televised statement, shortly before several vast hauls of severed elephant tusks — ornately piled like sacred shrines — is ceremoniously set ablaze. It’s a confiscated collection that, Kenyatta tells his audience, is worth $150 million, literally going up in smoke.
On the one hand, it’s a defiant and honorable gesture of principle, a boldly symbolic warning to illegal poachers that no blood money is good money; to unnamed, hard-up ivory trader “X,” watching the broadcast stony-faced from his squalid, impoverished shanty settlement, the long view isn’t quite so apparent. It’s a complex scene of moral whiplash that encapsulates the conflicting consciences driving “When Lambs Become Lions”: Jon Kasbe’s diamond-hard but humane documentary is most impressive in its equally divided sympathies between hunter, hunted and guardian.
Arriving on U.S. screens long after its debut at last year’s Tribeca fest, “When Lambs Become Lions” has racked up a long trail of festival dates and citations in the interim; most recently, it scored two well-earned craft nominations from the International Documentary Association. An Emmy-winning director of non-fiction shorts here making a muscular feature debut, Kasbe also takes camera and co-editing credits on a project that doesn’t sacrifice any human focus for its formidable, thriller-like cinematic heft: The film’s most jolting scenes plunge audiences immersively into the (for want of a better animal-related term) cat-and-mouse game of hunting in the wild, often at night, gaining extraordinary access to both the poachers and the rangers in what amounts to a form of bush warfare.
That’s a perception abetted by the regulation military fatigues worn by Asan, one of a mini-army of game rangers employed by a local conservancy — and a former poacher himself, qualified for the position by the old “it takes a thief to catch a thief” rationale. He’s also the cousin of “X,” who runs a small-time poaching racket without getting any blood on his own hands, instead delegating the actual hunting to his assistant Lukas. “I don’t like killing,” says “X,” a point he repeats as a kind of moral alibi.
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He takes no joy in his profession, which, illegal as it is, is also a cultural inheritance: “X” comes from a long line of elephant hunters, and claims that the money he makes from his trade at once feeds his children and “passes the curse” onto them. Audiences accustomed to viewing game hunting as a grotesque sport of privilege — as vividly demonstrated in the docs “Trophy” and Ulrich Seidl’s “Safari” — will have their perceptions challenged by Kasbe’s thorny, largely judgment-free film, in which it’s presented instead as an ugly means of survival in a society with few viable financial options.
Asan may take the ostensibly noble route in becoming a ranger, yet it proves no way to make a living. He goes unpaid for months, further aggravating a fraught relationship with his wife and children, while the job proves just as grisly as his old one, with rangers encouraged to shoot poachers on sight. Life, then, has little value on either side of the law. The longer Kasbe, who spent three years embedded with “X” and Asan’s crews to equally intimate effect, scrutinizes the routines and rituals of each man’s profession, the more they seem like two side of the same coin — one all too easily flipped.
Deftly, evenly edited and shorn of narration, this is fine, judicious observational filmmaking, preoccupied as much with modest domestic tensions as with the queasy thrill of the chase: Away from the hunt, the cousins live in markedly similar poverty, mutual victims of an economy that offers no incentive to do the right thing. Meanwhile, the Kenyan landscape — almost incidentally ravishing in Kasbe’s crisp, propulsive widescreen lensing — suffers silently under the feat of its beleaguered occupants. “When Lambs Become Lions” thoughtfully and provocatively articulates a collision of social and environmental crises in which man is both victor and victim: a circle of life that stalls us all.