Ivory poaching is a practice no one could possibly approve of: To further endanger the elephant species by killing individual animals is immoral. Some will tell you this isn’t just conventional wisdom; it’s a bedrock truth. Maddeningly, the ivory trade exists nevertheless.
So the documentarian Jon Kasbe gave himself a particularly daunting challenge when he set out to make “When Lambs Become Lions,” a picture about ivory poaching told largely from the perspective of those who do it.
In the economic wasteland of Kenya, an ivory dealer here called X plays the slick outlaw. “God has given me a sweet tongue and a sharp brain,” he says, adding, “I have no fear in my heart.” He’s easy to dislike, but he’s a desperate character who was born into the practice. He speaks of how he never kills elephants himself. That’s up to his comrade Lukas, who shoots the great beasts with poison arrows.
X has a cousin, Asan, who works as a ranger in a patrol assigned to stamp out poaching. His outfit hasn’t been paid in months. So he’s tempted to abet X and Lukas on an expedition. “The devil will burn you,” Asan’s young son yells at him.
Kasbe spent years among these people, and his movie is an intense 74-minute distillation of his dedication. It doesn’t go into the origins of the trade or how pressures from Western countries feed it. Rather, it’s a striking, human portrait of men in trouble, looking for escape and possibly redemption.
When Lambs Become Lions
Not rated. In Swahili, with subtitles, and English. Running time: 1 hour 14 minutes.