Film Review: “When Lambs Become Lions” vs “The Elephant Queen”

When Lambs Become Lions, Tribeca documentary

by HelenHighly

"The Elephant Queen" at DOC NYC

“The Elephant Queen” documentary

You have two choices. You’re very unlikely to watch two documentaries about elephants in the next few months, even if they are very different in tone and message. There is the widely-advertised The Elephant Queen, which features “magnificent images of majestic animals” (as stated by the New York Times) and follows a herd of elephants across the Kenyan savanna, led by the herd’s surprisingly intelligent and charismatic mother elephant. It opened in limited release Nov.1st and will be part of the launch for Apple TV Plus. By all accounts, that film is gorgeously shot, poignantly narrated and is an inspiring tribute to the power of motherhood. OR, if you want more from your movie than pretty shots of elephants at sunset as they run in slow motion across the plains – a film that begins with the cheesy line, “Oh wise and gentle spirits…”, you could watch When Lambs Become Lions by Jon Kasbe, a documentary centered around African elephant poaching and which Helen Highly Recommended back when I saw its world premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, and I recommend it even more urgently now. (Maybe if you have kids, they would enjoy Elephant Queen instead of a Disney movie.)

One of the most impressively crafted documentaries I have ever seen. This is what every documentary aspires to be.

"When Lambs Becomes Lions" documentary

“When Lambs Becomes Lions” documentary

Despite its African-savanna setting, When Lambs Becomes Lions is not a nature film or an animal film or a conservation advocate; it’s a film about human family, conflict and survival. It’s a true documentary rarity in that it presents a strong storyline –in the present-tense – and feels like a thriller. You will forget you are watching a documentary. It does not play to your sentimentality; it challenges your expectations and makes you think while it touches your heart with profundity not innocence.

Ivory poaching has unexpected complexity in "When Lambs Become Lions"

Ivory poaching has unexpected complexity in “When Lambs Become Lions”

I know ivory poaching sounds tedious. But When Lambs Become Lions uses ivory poaching (and its unexpected complexity) as the setting for a discerning and dramatic story about the tension between honor and survival, loyalty and desperation, tightly knotted with complicated family relationships, in an environment both magnificent and deadly. When Lambs Become Lions is one of the most impressively crafted documentaries I have ever seen. This is what every documentary aspires to be; it’s constructed from authentic and vivid real-life footage, with no talking heads or voice-over explanations to fill in the gaps, and it manages to tell a compelling narrative tale that performs as a suspenseful action-packed drama. It’s no surprise that it won the award for Best Documentary Editing at TFF.  

“Out here, we all are hunters” (poachers and rangers alike) — When Lambs Become Lions

"Lambs Become Lions" plays like a thriller

“Lambs Become Lions” plays like a thriller

As I have often mentioned, the wonder of film festivals is that you get an opportunity to see small films that may not find a distributor and will be never seen again. That seemed to be the sad fate of this TFF2018 documentary. I flat-out loved this film, and I was amazed it got so little attention and seemed to go nowhere. Well, as film-festival-miracles would have it, When Lambs Become Lions is suddenly BACK and getting a limited release in LA (starting 11/22) and NYC (starting 12/6) and hopefully a national rollout to follow. It’s opening weekend numbers will impact its chances for wider distribution, so go see it if you possibly can.

Vérité cinema in "When Lambs Become Lions"

Vérité cinema in “When Lambs Become Lions”

This work of vérité cinema takes us to the front lines of the poaching crisis through the intertwined stories of an ivory dealer and a wildlife ranger. In a Kenyan town bordering wildlife conservation land, “X”, a small-time ivory dealer, fights to stay on top while forces mobilize to destroy his trade. When he turns to his younger cousin, Asan, a conflicted poacher-fighting ranger who hasn’t been paid in months, we see the ways that these two men have been working both for and against each other. With each on the edge of catastrophe, they both see a possible lifeline in the other.

Rise and rise again, until lambs become lions — No, not from the Bible, maybe from an old poem, but yes, uttered by heroic Russell Crowe in the movie Robin Hood

Loyalties conflict in "When Lambs Become Lions"

Loyalties conflict in “When Lambs Become Lions”

The story itself is exciting, but equally exciting is the appearance of a new filmmaking talent – first-time feature director Jon Kasbe. Brooklyn-based Kasbe followed the film’s subjects with his camera in Kenya over a three-year period, gaining an extraordinary level of access and trust as he became part of their everyday lives. The result is a rare and visually arresting look through the perspectives and motives of the people at the epicenter of the conservation divide.

Director Jon Kasbe

Director Jon Kasbe

Even in fictional dramas, it is seldom that we get such rich characters in such relatable conflict (despite the foreign setting and situation). With this film, Kasbe makes a virtuoso debut; beyond his top-notch skills as a documentarian, he has a gift for understanding and depicting the nuances of the human struggle. As timely and politically relevant as this story is, When Lambs Becomes Lions is also a timeless tale of the complexity of courage in everyday life. 

In the world of this film there are no easy choices, but you do have an easy choice between two “elephant films.” Helen Highly Recommends When Lambs Become Lions. This is cinema at its best.



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