On a motorcycle tour through India in August 2001, Australian paramedic Benjamin Gilmour and his girlfriend decided to venture into a country they knew nearly nothing about – Pakistan. When their bike was confiscated on the border, they were forced to venture in on foot and soon found themselves in Darra Adam Khel, a small village that is the main weapons supplier to the population of the North-West Frontier. Despite the town’s reputation, they found it incredibly hospitable.
Dishing out medicine to celebrities on film sets in London a short time later, Gilmour was becoming infuriated by the one-sided post 9/11 press concerning the Pashtun people. He believed they needed to be seen in their own light and not condemned for a tribal code that mandated them to protect fugitives. With foreign filming forbidden and no desire to have his story guided by authorities, he invested in a digital camera, donned a bearskin and snuck back into Darra, determined to restore balance to the coverage of the Pashtun in film.
The result is Son of a Lion, a Carolyn Johnson-produced doco flavoured drama, that has made the local Pashtun people proud and the international media sit up. After a screening at the recent Berlin Film Festival, Gilmour reveals why, and how, he did it.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
“This village stuck in my mind – these little kids making guns and also the hospitality of the beautiful people,” says Gilmour in a Japanese restaurant in East Berlin. “These guys are fierce and they’ve got guns, but it is only to protect themselves. The Pashtuns just want to be left alone. And I believe that if they’re given space they can combat extremism within their midst. It is there but the majority in those tribal areas are moderate thinking Muslims who are peace loving and they don’t want trouble.”
In making Son of a Lion, Gilmour was seeking to provide a platform for a local story that balanced the Islamophobia he was witnessing in the press and among “educated, intelligent friends” back home. He sought to share the humour and humanity of the people who had welcomed him in 2001. “It was only when I saw [British filmmaker] Michael Winterbottom’s In This World shot on a MiniDV camcorder using non-professional actors in a similar environment that I realised I could possibly achieve my aim,” he says.
Son of a Lion is about a young boy who yearns to go to school but whose father wants him to continue in the family tradition of gun making. Set in the small village, it involves a cast of caring uncles, strong fathers, worried grandmothers, taunting rival kids and plenty of goats. The plot weaves themes of politics, tradition, education and change, and was developed and shot with the locals over two years.
The term “embedded filmmaking” was thrown around a lot by the Berlinale film festival press, referring to Western directors shooting with locals as actors in remote regions without film industries, the term deriving from “embedded” journalists who live with soldiers in a war zone.
Gilmour however, dislikes the description. Stories from embedded positions are usually depicted as closer to a “truth”, but Gilmour believes that they are too often shot and produced from their own side and without access to local, common opinion. “We desperately need more independent writers and filmmakers willing to take the risks involved in becoming embedded on the other side of the trenches,” he says.