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I have this theory but it’s only a theory, mind you: I think that children around the world, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, or religion, all just really want to be kids. They don’t want to work…they don’t want to carry guns and fight in militias or gangs…they don’t want to be shot at or fear for their lives…they really just want the opportunity to run around, play, laugh and have fun. They want to dance and build forts, make up stupid games and catch bugs. Kids don’t want to grow up too fast: society wants them to grow up fast, in order to become a part of the machine. If it was up to the youth, in my opinion, they’d be just as happy enjoying those preciously short, responsibility-free days for as long as they could, forestalling that eventual slog into the all-too adult world of employment (gainful or not), endless war and continual strife. I could be wrong, of course, but I have a feeling I’m not.

Australian filmmaker Benjamin Gilmour’s extraordinary debut feature, Son of a Lion (2007), examines just what it means to be a child in one of the most severe spots in the world: the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan. Set in the weapons-manufacturing town of Darra Adam Khel and filmed using all non-professional locals, who collaborated with Gilmour on the (mostly) improvised dialogue, Son of a Lion is a bracingly honest, unapologetic look into a way of life that many Westerners only visit through sensationalist new stories and “us vs them” politics. As we see, the location and way of life may be distinctly different from what many Westerners are used to but the underlying emotions and motivations are always the same: around the world, parents want a better life for their children than they had. When this desire for a better life collides with deeply held notions of tradition, faith, duty and familial responsibility,  the potential for drama is endless. Quit frankly, Son of a Lion is mighty impressive filmmaking.

We begin with our protagonist, 11-year-old Niaz Afridi (Niaz Khan Shinwari) and his stern, old-fashioned father, Sher Alam (Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad Baktiyar). Sher Alam is one of the numerous gun makers in the small town of Darra Adam Khel: in truth, the town’s entire industry appears to revolve around weapons and munitions manufacture. Everyone appears to be fully armed, at all times, and the air is thick with the gunfire and cordite, as testing-firing guns into the air appears to be a local pastime. Sher Alam is very proud of his work, a vocation that has been passed down from father to son over several generations. He fought with the muhajaden against the Russians and is a dedicated Muslim. More than anything, Sher Alam wants Niaz to follow in his footsteps. There’s just one issue: Niaz would rather be a kid.

When riding the bus one day (huge, multi-level contraptions that I found endlessly fascinating), Niaz happens to overhear a couple young boys complaining about their homework load. Ironically, Niaz is jealous: he’s one of the only kids in history that actually wants homework. More than anything, though, Niaz wants to go to school: he wants to learn and hang out with other kids. He’s tired of spending the entire day in his father’s shop, making guns, only to spend the rest of the time target practicing with them. He wants to listen to his beloved cassette tape, featuring the rebab music that his father abhors (along with things like TV, movies, books, etc) while enjoying the warm days. Basically, Niaz wants to act like an 11-year-old boy, not the successor to his father’s business.

Niaz isn’t the only one who wants to see him break away from his father and receive an education. Niaz’s friend, the goofy, good-natured, Agha Jaan (Agha Jaan Anousha Baktiyar), tells Niaz that he needs to “get a computer, not a pistol” and says that education is one of the cornerstones of the Islamic faith: “The Prophet said if you need to go as far as China to get knowledge, just go.” Niaz’s uncle, Baktiyar (Baktiyar Ahmed Afridi Agha) also encourages him to get an education, so that he can be like his cousin, Anousha (Anousha Vasif Shinwari). Baktiya and Anousha live in Peshawar, a much more Westernized city, where Niaz gets his first experience with a big-city dentist (not good) and the movies (life-changing). Turns out that you can take the boy out of the city but you can’t take the city out of the boy: upon returning, Niaz is even more intent on going to school, which causes his father to become even more of a stonewall. You see, Niaz’s mother died and Sher Alam will not, under any circumstances, let his only son “disappear”: he’s staying right there to keep the family business going. Throw in a powerful, local man (Hayat Khan Shinwari), his obnoxious bully of a son (Khaista Mir Hayat Afridi) and some terrible rumors about Niaz’s beloved uncle Baktiyar and you have all the ingredients for one powerhouse coming-of-age drama.

One of the most extraordinary and noteworthy things about Son of a Lion (and there are quite a few) is the completely non-judgmental, honest and realistic way in which everything and everyone are presented. This is not a Western film with a hidden agenda: there is no attempt whatsoever to label anyone whatsoever. Instead, Gilmour worked with the locals to ensure that their voices and stories were represented, not his. The people in the film are not “terrorists” or “suicide-bombers”: they are real, flesh-and-blood humans with families, histories, lives, loves and fears. One of the most intriguing parts of the film ends up being the scene where Sher Alam and a bunch of his friends hang out and shoot the shit. The conversation veers everywhere, from local politics to the global stage, and U.S. versus Middle East relations are (obviously) a big topic. Refreshingly enough, the men all express a variety of opinions, with Sher Alam coming off the most hard-line, while the others fall somewhere between bemusement and mild indifference. At one point, someone mentions that the only difference between a “terrorist” and a “patriot” is the support they receive from America. For these men, in this situation, that’s not some kind of value judgment: it’s just the facts of life.

Later on, the village men sit around and discuss Niaz’s “school issue” and the general consensus seems to be that, despite “tradition,” education is a good thing. An educated Pashtun nation can rise up and change the impression that Western countries seem to have of the Muslim world. The times are changing, they agree, and so must their people if they are to survive and flourish. As Sher Alam’s friend, Haji, notes: “We work from dawn to dusk and wake to hear about our terrorist activities…when do we have the time?” It’s all about perception and perspective, something that comes up again and again in the film.

Structurally, Son of a Lion isn’t much different from similar more “Westernized” versions of the same story: you have a feisty, smart kid trying to buck the restrictive traditions of an old-fashioned parent and find his/her own way in the world. As I said earlier, I’m pretty sure that this is a universal, eternal storyline: as long as there are children and parents, this struggle will play itself out. The issue becomes more complex in Son of a Lion because issues of cultural tradition and religion play a large part in events. There’s also, of course, the omnipresent subtext of global conflict: in this part of the world, the next bullet could come, literally, from anywhere. Despite this constant state of conflict, however, the people in Son of a Lion are just trying to live normal lives, the best they can. Although set exclusively in Pakistan, Son of a Lion is probably the single most “universal” film I’ve seen in ages.

Since the film utilizes strictly non-professional locals, there’s the notion that performances could come off as awkward or stagey: in reality, everything comes across as very natural and flowing. If anything, Son of a Lion often resembles a documentary (much of the film was shot using a hidden camera, so that Gilmour, in disguise, could record on the streets of Darra Adam Khel without being identified) with several truly lovely, cinematic moments (the aforementioned bus rides are quite magical, as is Niaz’s first visit to Peshawar. Niaz is a true find, so natural and charismatic that you instantly want more of him, although the entire cast is quite extraordinary. In particular, Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad Baktiyar gives a knockout performance as Niaz’s father, making the character completely multi-dimensional: he’s not set-up as just an opposition figure for Niaz to overcome. Sher Alam genuinely loves Niaz and that love makes certain scenes exceptionally poignant and painful. For a non-professional actor, Sher Alam does some of the most subtle, intuitive acting I’ve ever seen. If this ends up being his only film, it was a helluva way to go in/out.

Ultimately, Son of a Lion is a remarkable film, a piece of art that bears the distinct possibility of being able to bridge the gulf between Western and Muslim culture simply by virtue of pointing out our many similarities, rather than our differences. The film asks many difficult questions and never shies from the answers (in one particularly illuminating moment, it’s revealed that Sher Alam takes immense pride in making his weapons but gives no thought whatsoever to how they will be used…this attitude mirrors a similar one in Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises (2013) and points out the essential truth that the people actually making the weapons of war aren’t necessarily the ones using them).

Perhaps Son of a Lion is the perfect example of catching lightning in a bottle: a Western filmmaker who wanted to make an honest, non-judgmental film about another culture, in collaboration with these same people. In many ways, it’s the perfect synthesis of two worlds. If you’ve ever had a child…or know a child…or were a child (if your hand still isn’t up, you may have some explaining to do), then Son of a Lion is a must-see. In a world filled with disposable entertainment, Gilmour’s film is that treat that actually has something to say: here’s to hoping that more people listen.