“I have a special gift,” says “X” in Jon Kasbe’s supple, complex, and darkly gorgeous documentary “When Lambs Become Lions,” having its world premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. “A sweet tongue and a smart brain.” He’s an ivory poacher in northern Kenya. More specifically, he’s a fixer, operating between the armed men who go into the bush to slaughter elephants and hack off their tusks, and the moneymen who pay top dollar for the gruesome cargo. “I’m the king,” he laughs, lighting a cigarette with a gangster’s flourish and grin in the night.
On the other side of the divide from X is Asan (like the other principals, his name is invented, though everyone shows their face). As withdrawn and modest as X is boastful, Asan is a ranger assigned to the conservancies established in recent years to protect the nation’s few remaining elephants. Asan and his comrades are no park rangers in the way that Western audiences might expect. Instead, they wear camouflage and carry assault rifles. Asan, at least, proves on the target range to be a dead shot. “Out here,” he notes darkly, “we’re all hunters.”
The two sides are trapped in a tight embrace. X says his other option is like most other Kenyans out there, hustling for grubby little day-jobs. Like many swaggering but vulnerable gangsters, he’d rather live a comparatively high life even for a brief time and face the ranger’s’ shoot-to-kill policy than return to an honest but more servile-feeling life. Nevertheless, he admits to a certain delicacy of emotion, refusing to take part in the killing itself, employing a poacher named Lukas to do the dirty work, bringing down seven-ton creatures with poisoned arrows, for him.
Asan and the other rangers present as deeply dedicated to their job—“better to kill the poacher and spare the elephant” is one sentiment, and suspected poachers are casually beaten while the camera rolls—but their economic realities are no harsher. In fact, Asan was once a poacher himself; explaining perhaps his insight. But being a ranger is no guarantee to the easy life; Asan’s wife complains about his not having been paid in months. Given the dry and windswept landscapes, it’s difficult to see many other opportunities.
Kasbe spent years embedded with his subjects—akin to the working style of executive producer Matthew Heineman (“City of Ghosts”)—explaining perhaps their remarkable nonchalance in talking about their lives. He gracefully captures the conflicted loyalties of X and Asan’s relationship, which exemplifies the interwoven nature of the crisis. Even though the stakes are life and death, plus vast amounts of money—a particularly vivid scene comes late in the movie when authorities set fire to confiscated ivory worth some $150 million—the two men have to live with each other. They’re cousins, after all. That revelation, followed by an incredible scene where X races to help out Asan’s pregnant wife when he can’t get to her in time, casts Asan’s mordant comment about X (“eventually his choices will catch up to him”) in the light of a worried relative instead of a disapproving authority figure.
Adding to the fraught complexities of economic insecurity and environmental devastation, “When Lambs Become Lions” wraps its story in a sweep of broodingly gorgeous imagery. The heaps of ashen ivory, clouds of smoke filling the sky, elephants caught in the distance, their corpses glimpsed momentarily on a screen, and X and Asan’s pensive worry over the rightness of their decisions creates a beautiful portrait of seemingly opposite lives intertwined in the same tragedy. [A]