May 5, 2020  (Web Review)

When Lambs Become Lions

Oscilloscope, 79 min., VOD: $3.99, Apr. 20 (avail. on most digital platforms)

Reviewer rating: 3.5/4

Ivory poachers and the men who fight them in Kenya are the subject of documentarian Jon Kasbe’s remarkable When Lambs Become Lions. Reportedly working on this project for years, Kasbe gains the trust of and access to poachers who kill elephants on behalf of international clients seeking ivory tusks. He earns the similar confidence of government Rangers who patrol the wilds where elephant herds roam; gun-toting soldiers watching for poachers and brutalizing the ones who are caught. Unsurprisingly, both sides in the struggle are revealed as human, more complex than simply villains and heroes. In an impoverished country, poaching is very much organized crime with many players, from scouts to the killers who take down elephants with poisoned arrows. Yet it’s hard not to understand how at least some of the poachers we meet are motivated by the need to feed their families. Meanwhile, the Rangers haven’t been paid in months, leading to domestic distress and the occasional temptation to switch sides in the war on poaching. Kasbe captures the intensity of the battle in a taut, exciting 74 minutes, brilliantly paced with the heap of images exploring Kenyan nature at its most serene or jittery. Note: we never actually see an elephant killed in this film, but Kasbe indeed follows the hunt by criminals, and we hear an elephant cry out when struck by an arrow. Strongly recommended. Aud: C,P. (T. Keogh)