Dir: Benjamin Gilmour. Australia/Pakistan. 2007. 92mins.
Childrens' exposure to gun culture is fast becoming one of the fail-safe themes of world cinema, but we haven't yet seen it in quite the context presented by the inventive Pakistan-set drama Son Of A Lion.
Benjamin Gilmour's no-frills DV feature, co-written with collaborators from the towns of Kohat and Darra Adem Khel in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan, presents a tenacious 11-year-hero set on furthering himself through education, and breaking away from a culture ruled by Kalashnikovs.
Made in the Pashtun language, this gritty drama, with its strong documentary spin, affords rich insight into little-documented aspects of life in the wake of the Afghanistan conflict. Newsworthy qualities and narrative approachability will make it a must for festivals - especially with a political and human rights slant - and for adventurous buyers of rawer independent material.
Shot in the NWFP on the border with Afghanistan, the film features non-professionals who appear to be playing themselves, or close versions thereof. Niaz Khan Shinwari plays Niaz, an 11-year-old Pashtun boy who works in the gun workshop of his father Sher Alam (Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad), a hard-bitten ex-Mujahideen fighter. Niaz, who has an eager ear for the rabab - a local string instrument - dreams of getting an education, his aspirations spurred by his friendship with Agha Jaan, a poet who lives in the local Afghan refugee camp.
Niaz's uncle Baktiyar, who owns a garage in nearby city Peshawar, is keen to find the boy a school place, but the devout and severe Sher Alam - who believes computers and TV are the devil's work - insists that Niaz stay at home and learn the manly art of firing and fixing machine guns. Bullied by an older boy, Niaz finally sneaks off to Peshawar and gets a nightmarish taste of city life.
Notwithstanding its believable upbeat resolution, the film is only partly about Niaz's coming-of-age narrative, and most of its fascination derives from the quasi-documentary insights into a region and culture that rarely receive this degree of empathetic scrutiny.
The film features strong, relaxed acting across the board, notably from Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad as a stern but ultimately sympathetic dad. Young lead Niaz Khan Shinwari is winning initially for his sheer reticent ordinariness, but opens out as the film progresses and comes into his own in a magnificent scene in which he finally confronts his father's values.
The DV photography is rough-edged, often blurry, but that only enhances the authentic feel of a film, which captures the starkness of the local terrain. Gilmour and co-DoP Haroon John, even when struggling against the limitations of the cameras, always have an eye for an unfussily imposing shot. The film is all the more impressive given that it was shot undercover to avoid problems with the Pakistani authorities.
Carolyn Johnson Films
Australian Film Commission
Hayat Khan Shinwari
Benjamin Gilmour with members of the cast
Directors of photography
Alison McSkimming Croft
Niaz Khan Shinwari