Documentaries are normally defined as films that concern “real” people and “real” stories. Yet the irony is that documentaries often can’t help but seem a bit inauthentic. Whereas fictional narrative films use actors who are used to being on camera, documentaries feature real people who may be self-conscious about being filmed. The result is that many documentaries leave you with one persistent question: would the people onscreen be behaving differently if they weren’t being filmed?
“The film portrays the daily lives of two men who are on opposite sides of what one could call the ‘war on poaching.'”
Jon Kasbe’s When Lambs Become Lions is that rare documentary that enables you to answer that question in the negative. Set in northern Kenya, the film portrays the daily lives of two men who are on opposite sides of what one could call the “war on poaching.” Asan is a ranger whose main responsibilities are to monitor the Kenyan wilderness, protect animals, and punish poachers he encounters on his patrols. Conversely, “X” is a poacher who has perfected the art of killing animals with poison-tipped arrows.
As mentioned, what stands out about When Lambs Become Lions is its remarkable intimacy. Frequently, Kasbe’s framing, camera movements, and editing assume such a familiarity with his subjects that, if you didn’t know otherwise, you’d think you were watching a fictional narrative film with actors trained to be un-self-conscious. Put another way, the film miraculously manages to shed the feeling of inauthenticity that dogs quite a few documentaries, and that lends a powerful sense of immersion to the film’s depiction of Asan and X’s world.