But in the hands of documentarian Jon Kasbe, making his striking feature debut after a handful of short films, the movie is something far less binary, and far more intriguing. Kasbe embeds with players on both sides to show that one group can’t exist without the other. Worse, the fact that either exists at all is an implicit sign of deep societal unrest.
Kasbe opens on a poacher identified only as “X,” who regards himself as the alpha member of his team — as well as his household and his town — so much so that he doesn’t do the killing himself. Instead, he leaves it to Lukas, his beleaguered assistant.
With the camera positioned alongside them, the pair and their colleagues scout a desert area for signs of suitable targets. They’re stopped at one point by a ranger, prompting X to ask the cameraperson not to film. The scene suddenly cuts to a view of the ranger’s exchange with X from a more distant vantage point.
It’s the one moment when Kasbe allows his crew’s efforts to become part of the story. There are otherwise only a few on-screen titles to establish setting but no talking heads, no explanatory narration, no acknowledgment of the pains the film crew must have taken to achieve such intimacy in these high-stakes situations. The restraint is admirable, though deciphering how much time has elapsed between one segment and the next can occasionally be challenging.
Instead of fussing over exposition, the film refreshingly widens its aperture to include the rangers. The main subject of that thread is Asan, who’s eventually revealed to be a close relative of X, the poacher. The two are still in touch, despite their competing professional obligations, preventing them from regarding their enemies as monolithic.
Meanwhile, Asan witnesses the birth of a daughter and argues with his wife and young son, all the while wrestling with the rigors of his job and an ongoing labor dispute that has held up his meager paycheck for months.
The film largely unfolds as a tense family drama, albeit with the constant threat of violence between men, as well as between man and elephant. The animals themselves largely appear in the background of wide shots, or they fill the frame in overhead footage. Though the majestic creatures drive the decisions made by the film’s human subjects, they remain unknowable objects of pity and wonder.
Excerpts of an anti-poaching speech by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta play near the end of the film, reminding us of the moral stakes of the conflict. But the movie refrains from assigning blame — or virtue.
X is as comfortable teaching his son to ride a bicycle as he is negotiating with drug dealers and police officers. But even he’s conflicted about what he does. His line of work is relatively lucrative and stable, but also illegal and dangerous.
“It puts food on the table,” he says at one point. “How could you resist?”
As Asan notes, ominously, “Eventually his choices will catch up to him.” That may be true, but as the demand for ivory dwindles, the same could be said for Asan. The title of “When Lambs Become Lions” could refer to any of its subjects: One way or another, everyone involved is endangered and fighting for survival.
Unrated. At Landmark’s West End Cinema. Contains some brief violence and frightening images. In Swahili and English with subtitles. 79 minutes.