SON OF A LION
Eleven-year-old Niaz (Niaz Khun Shinwari) who lives with his father (Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad) in a small town in northwest Pakistan, where for generations the local population have earned their living by producing weapons. It would seem that this is what the future holds for Niaz. But Niaz has different ambitions, and dreams of being allowed to go to school. His longing for an education marks Niaz as an outsider amongst the other young people within his community. And when finally, he refuses to follow in his father's footsteps, pent-up conflicts erupt within his family.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
I first saw this shortly after its world premiere at the Berlin film festival, at a special, full house screening during the 2008 Dungog Film Festival (May 29 - June 1); this is the only festival devoted exclusively to Australian films, which adds to the piquancy of Benjamin Gilmour's gripping drama, all about a young boy on the other side of the world. The film is entirely in Pashtun, subtitled in English, and all the cast are people Gilmour recruited from the region where he made the film. Yet it's an Australian film, simply because it was made by Australians. That, and the fact that Gilmour's point of view is that of an outsider, asking the naïve questions that we might ask ourselves.
It's a guerrilla film made with great difficulty under the official radar and with none of the usual trappings of a Western film shoot (shot on DVCPro). But it needs no apology: it is a great example of the power of a good story well executed. The story reverberates around the world in its relevance to all cultures, and prompts us to ask ourselves questions of ourselves.
The boy's predicament draws us into this unique world, which differs greatly from our own, yet is readily familiar to us in its human dimensions. The father / son relationship is astutely observed and sits in a real world context. The clash of tradition with the boy's instinct to find a way out of his limited prospects through education become more meaningful as we get closer to the characters. And it's not just Niaz, but his supportive uncle, Agha Jaan - who gives one of the film's most penetrating performances.
The story is driven by the characters, and Gilmour elicits terrific performances from them all. This is an elegantly simple story and the telling is effective, magnified by a great sense of place that is part of the film's appeal.
Review by Louise Keller:
A fascinating glimpse into the life of a little boy and his family in Pakistan, this compelling documentary-like film using all non-actors, gives an insider's view of the terrain, the lifestyle and the Pashtun people. At 11 years of age, Niaz (Niaz Khun Shinwari) is an outsider. He dutifully helps his father in his gun workshop, but all he wants to do is go to school. Australian first time writer director Benjamin Gilmour, who also helped shoot the film in true guerilla style, offers us a fly-on-the wall look at a harsh world in an equally harsh landscape. Shot on mini DV in cloak and dagger circumstances to avoid detection in this dangerous part of the world, the film essentially explores a father son relationship couched in its unique environment. The structure might be a bit rough around the edges, but its insight is astounding as is Gilmour's piquant film.
In the film's opening sequence, we meet Niaz in the desolate Afghanistan landscape, learning from his father how to shoot a gun. 'Are you a man or a girl?' his father Sher Alam (Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad) asks when his son says he can't shoot the rifle. We follow Niaz through his daily routine as he collects hashish for his grandfather, eggs for his grandmother and soon realise the reason for his reluctance. His heart simply isn't in it. He wants to learn to read and write at school, a place where neither his father nor grandfather before him ever went. According to his father, it is more important to be tutored in revenge. We get a feel for the way of life; the dusty roads, the gawdy, ornately painted buses, the goats resting by the roadside and boys swimming in the river. We are wide-eyed as we hear men talking politics at the barbers: there's chit chat about Osama Bin Laden's favourite gun, Saddam Hussein's non-existent weapons of mass destruction and discussions about the way their culture and the Muslim religion is portrayed. There's an incongruous scene when Niaz' Uncle Baktiyar (Baktiyar Ahmed Afridi) talks movies: of a man who reminds him of Clint Eastwood, while his father recalls the movie he once saw (Rambo 3).
Gilmour elicits excellent naturalistic performances from his cast of locals, keeping always the thread of the father son relationship in the foreground. It's a remarkable film and the melancholy face of the little boy in whose journey we partake, remains as a window of hope.
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SON OF A LION (PG)
CAST: Niaz Khan Shinwari, Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad, Agha Jaan, Fazal Bibi, Anousha Vasif Shinwari, Baktiyar Ahmed Afridi
PRODUCER: Carolyn Johnson
DIRECTOR: Benjamin Gilmour
SCRIPT: Benjamin Gilmour
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Benjamin Gilmour, Haroon John
EDITOR: Alison Croft
MUSIC: Amanda Brown
RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Gil Scrine Films
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: August 21, 2008