Fascinating and affecting, if a bit sluggish until it finds its narrative way, the observational documentary “When Lambs Become Lions” tracks two men in the Kenyan bush who work on flip sides of the controversial ivory trade.
Producer-director Jon Kasbe spent three years following “X,” a cocky, small-time ivory dealer, and his more pensive cousin, Asan (names were changed to protect Kasbe’s subjects), a game ranger tasked with protecting the country’s dwindling elephant population from the poachers — including a hunter named Lukas — who do X’s dirty work.
That Kasbe, who also shot and co-edited, so firmly embedded himself in this distant, hardscrabble world results in a wealth of candid, you-are-there moments that highlight the complex intersection between the fraught state of wildlife preservation and the desperate scramble for human survival.
Although we spend enough time with X and Asan (and their families) to help us better grasp the ethical choices men like these must make, the film doesn’t sufficiently present their emotional stances about the majestic creatures they either exploit or defend — the lines of which grippingly blur as the movie progresses.
Titled for a Kenyan proverb (“An empty stomach will turn many lambs into lions”), the doc contains several indelible, beautifully captured images, including a startling bonfire of $150 million worth of confiscated ivory.
Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes.
Playing: Starts Nov. 22, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica