Monday, May 05, 2008

benjamin gilmour's film 'son of a lion'

Australian filmmaker Benjamin Gilmour had to resort to unusual methods to make his film “Son of a Lion” in one of the most inaccessible and hazardous parts of the world to outsiders: the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. He shot the film in and around the gun-making town of Darra Adam Khel, in a tribal area which is out of bounds to foreigners. In order to avoid drawing attention to himself he became a “guerrilla filmmaker”, growing a beard and dressing in shalwar kameez and Pashtun hat so as to blend in with the locals. He had no wish to attract the attention of Pakistani intelligence agencies, or of militants.

Gilmour shot his film on a small Sony mini-DV camera so as to reduce the chances of being detected. This gives his deeply humane 92-minute first film an intimate, documentary feel. The scenery is stunning in its grandeur, with its sweeping mountains, green valleys and rich red soil. Trucks and buses painted with gaudy patterns ply the roads.

The film roles were played not by professional actors but mostly by family and friends of Gilmour’s executive producer and local “fixer” Hayat Khan Shinwari, a land owner and film buff with a particular liking for spaghetti westerns.

The main storyline tells of the clash between the longing of 11-year-old Niaz to go to school, and the insistence of his father Sher Alam Afridi that he should instead learn how to make guns in his father’s workshop. The film explores Pashtun culture and values, and the pressures the people are under. It had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February and is to be screened at several other festivals before being released in cinemas and on DVD. The producer is Carolyn Johnson, and the editor Alison McSkimming Croft

Gilmour, who turns 33 this year, worked for a number of years as a paramedic based in Sydney. He became interested in filmmaking when working as a unit nurse on UK film sets (he was a medic to Sharon Stone at one point).

He set his heart on making a film among the Pashtuns after he fell in love with the North West Frontier Province while travelling there with his girlfriend in August 2001. They went to Darra Adam Khel, famed for its manufacture of weapons. The town’s highly skilled craftsmen can make replicas of virtually any gun. The guns are regularly tested by being fired into the air.

Gilmour‘s imagination was captured by “this wild territory of handsome turbaned warriors, mud-walled fortress compounds, stark dangerous mountains, drug smuggling and vendettas.” He found the Pashtuns wonderfully hospitable.

In making “Son of a Lion”, Gilmour wanted to “try to balance out the tainted perception people in the West have of Muslims as a whole after the events of September 11.” He saw making the film as “an excellent way to carry out my goal of opposing the Islamophobia I saw around me. Islamophobia has infected a great many ordinary people around the world who simply do not have any experience of Muslim people beyond the evening news.”

Gilmour adds: “What particularly fascinated me about these rough Pashtun tribesmen was that although they were always heavily armed, they were actually more obsessed with poetry and music than weaponry. Trying to get my head around the way people of other cultures think without judging them has always been a mission of mine, and the Pashtuns seemed my greatest challenge yet.” He has written a 400-page book, “Warrior Poets”, on his journeys to Pakistan and the making of his film. It is to be published by the Murdoch Books imprint Pier 9 in June.

Before going to Pakistan to make his film, Gilmour wrote a script which ran to 110 pages. However, when his fixer and his colleagues read it they laughed at it so Gilmour ditched it and worked on a new script in close collaboration with his contacts. Much of the dialogue in the film was improvised by the actors themselves, and the writing credit on the film is “Benjamin Gilmour in collaboration with the people of Kohat and Darra Adam Khel”.

The part of Niaz is played by Hayat Khan Shinwari’s son, also called Niaz, who has an appealingly soulful face. He is wistful when he hears schoolboys on a bus talking about trigonometry, and complains to his grandmother that every day he sees children going to school while he has to work.

Niaz’s mother died when he was very young, and he sometimes visits her grave for solace. His father, played by Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad, was a fighter with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the Soviets, and he tells his son of the battles he fought against great odds and shows off his battle scars.

Sher Alam has a workshop that makes weapons from small arms to AK47s, and in the opening scene of the film he is giving Niaz a lesson in the countryside on how to fire a Smith and Wesson. “Are you a man or a girl?” he demands of his son. There is considerable emphasis on masculinity in the culture; when Niaz is taunted by the local big bully boy Pite and some other boys, he is teased for his “girly face”.

Niaz’s grandmother is fond of the boy and towards the end of the film plays a crucial part in mediating between father and son. One area of discord is that, to his father’s disapproval, Niaz loves music. At one point he peeks into a male wedding party where a rubab player is performing and a young man dancing.

There is much talk of politics among the men when they meet in the tea shop, barber, and other gathering places. They discuss 9/11, America, the Iraq war, Afghanistan. One discussion is about Osama Bin Laden and whether they would give him up in exchange for bounty, or extend hospitality. There is plenty of humor in the men’s exchanges. Niaz’s father recalls that the only film he has ever seen, back in Afghanistan, was Rambo III starring Sylvester Stallone. (In this 1988 film, Rambo goes to Afghanistan to fight with the mujahedeen against the Soviets.)

NIaz’s father’s brother Baktiyar (played by Baktiyar Ahmed Afridi) lives in the city of Peshawar, and is a relatively wealthy businessman. He tries to persuade Niaz’s father to enroll him in school, but Sher Alam is adamant: “I didn’t study, why should he?” When Niaz visits Peshawar for a dental appointment (an unexpectedly comic scene) his uncle takes him to a school where he has his first experience of being in a classroom. The uncle points out to Niaz’s father that the boy’s late mother had wanted him to be educated.

The tension between Niaz and the bullying Pite threatens to escalate when Sher Alam tells Niaz that he may have to answer Pite with a gun. He then visits Pite’s father to try and head off a confrontation, warning him it is a “clan issue”. However, when Pite is shot by another person Niaz staunches the flow of blood with his cap and helps to save his life.

Sher Alam Miskeen Usrtad gives an affecting performance as Niaz’s father. At first he seems authoritarian and harsh, but gradually he reveals his fears that his son will abandon him as his wife did when she died. When he finally agrees that Niaz should learn to read and write, he says this should be at a “proper” school. He rules out Niaz’s going to a traditional madrasa as he believes “the USA is all over them”, and says “I don’t want them to take you to Cuba and torture you.”

Music has an important part in the film. The Australian musician and composer Amanda Brown has put together a soundtrack that complements the film’s emotional power. There are also some tracks from the CD “From Cabool to California” featuring Professor John Baily on rubab, Ustadh Asif Mahmoud on tabla and John Harrelson on tanbura.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, 5 May 2008

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