Wednesday, May 02, 2012

I Watch Films: Son of a Lion

0. Boring Introduction

This film (Son of a Lion (2007)) was sent to my brother in his professional capacity by the director Benjamin Gilmour. It was filmed and set in Darra, a gunmaking town near the tribal areas of Pakistan. My brother arranges tours in Central Asia including in this area and they have discussed collaborating. This review, however, is purely my own and is as unbiased as I can make it, considering that a. I'm me; b. I watched it three months ago, and; c. I watched it in Amsterdam after catching the overnight coach and having about 2 hours sleep the night before, then spent the day marching through a snowstorm.

1. Setting and Story

As I said in the boring introduction, the film was made and mostly set in Darra in Pakistan, a Pashtun town devoted to making guns, with some scenes set in Peshawar. The story starts with a boy receiving a letter from his cousin. He is unable to read it. He decides he wants to go to school and learn to read, but his father wants him to stay with him and continue his apprenticeship as a gunsmith.

This is the central conflict of the story, with most of the characters lining up to support the boy, but the father resisting. Adding nuance to his refusal is the fact that boy, father and grandmother are all the family who live in Darra. The boy is an only child and his mother is dead.

2. Reasons To Watch The Film 1: Unique Viewpoint

This story is pretty familiar to anyone likely to watch the film. But we don't really watch films for the story[1], so I'm not sad about this. The most interesting part to me is when the elders of village get together to drink tea and discuss the situation. They start off with some relevant points - Pashtuns need lawyers and other educated professionals to avoid being screwed over by the government, but they swiftly get distracted into other issues - America, terrorism and Osama bin Laden, who at the time was believed to be in hiding in the areas Darra supplies guns for[2]. One guy's nuanced take (bin Laden would be welcome as a guest who comes in peace, but not as a terrorist) was notable. There was swift disagreement that, as a criminal, he should be turned over to the authorities by one guy (who in my memory had a magnificent white beard) which was followed by the joke that he wanted to get his hands on the reward.

The elders' influence is complicated by the fact that the father is respected and a little feared because, as a young man, he fought with the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, and was one of 30 survivors of 200. There seemed an edge to the exaggerated courtesy everyone used with him that reflected that.

3. Reasons To Watch The Film 2: Visuals

The countryside is magnificent. Filmed on location in the Hindu Kush, the hills, valleys, and rivers are on full display. Most journeys are taken on heavily decorated buses and trucks (the boy's uncle owns a trucking firm in Peshawar) which are worth watching for. The Darra bazaar looks like a dull row of booths and shops until gunsmiths step outside their shops to test their weapons by firing into the air. The scenes in Peshawar, the big city, are slightly more familiar, but the sheer volume of life is still extraordinary.

4. Reasons To Watch The Film 3: Music

The music was composed by Amanda Brown in what I'm told are Afghan and Pakistani styles. I remember it as being pretty good and it won an award. Of course, this might actually be a reason to get the soundtrack rather than watch the film.

5. Problems Learning Experiences

There is a fair amount of sitting around in walled compounds talking[3]. This isn't really a problem, except for the fact that as I don't speak Pashto I'm just reading the subtitles and glancing up at yet another still face hiding any feelings. The grandmother in particular seemed to declare her lines in an unnatural way.

This was unfortunate as the grandmother was one of only two female speaking roles. On the night I made a big fuss about this; obviously for practical reasons there would be few female characters. However the cousin, whose letter starts the film, seemed oddly placed in the story. A similar age to the boy, she is seen in several of the Peshawar scenes. Firstly she goes to the cinema with the boy and her father (his uncle); then she's seen fascinated with, and touching one of the decorated trucks while her uncle is on the phone; lastly she brings towels and water to greet the boy when he runs away to Peshawar. She's significant but I can't figure out what she signifies; she has the start of her own story, but it doesn't seem to end. I WANT MORE COUSIN. Maybe the sequel should by Daughter of a Lion? I'm sure that there will be no problems with Ben Gilmour wandering into Central Asia and saying "Hi, I'd like to film your wives, sisters and daughters."[4]

6. Summing Up
Watch This: To see a more human and possibly more realistic view of the Pashtun people and culture, and a window into the sort of life that happens when everyone in the village is into everyone else's business.
Don't Watch This: If a fairly conventional story married to unconventional settings and characters aren't your thing. Also if you don't like subtitles. Also if you can't play region 4 DVDs.
One Last Thing: Benjamin Gilmour's website.

[1] No, really. Character, visuals, sound, jokes, drama, all much more important to most people.
[2] But as it turns out, not.
[3] Not having permission to be there, as well as it being an area with strong Taliban connections meant that most of the dialogue scenes are either inside compounds or out in deserted countryside.
[4] In my mind, there are parallel scenes with the elders' in which the women gather to shop, or wash or something and discuss the same issues from another point of view, which influence what's going on in subtle but profound ways.
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