Sunday, March 08, 2009

NYICFF: Son of a Lion

Delivering a bag of bullets and a chunk of hashish to his grandfather is a typical errand for young Niaz. Both products are very definitely a fact of life in the Northwest Pashtun area of Pakistan, realistically rendered in Australian director Benjamin Gilmour’s Son of a Lion (trailer here), which screened at the New York International Children’s Film Festival, as part of this year’s special series: Children and War.

Niaz’s father, Sher Alam Afridi, is a former mujahideen fighter who needs little prompting to tell listeners he was one of only thirty fighters to survive a Soviet attack, out of a group of two hundred. He has specific plans for his son, which does not include a formal education. At least, he will learn an in-demand trade working in his father gun repair workshop.

Images of guns dominate Gilmour’s presentation of Pakistan, but the level of gun safety practiced would horrify any card-carrying member of the NRA. The shockingly irresponsible practice of test firing into the air is a common occurrence, with more thought given to collecting the spent cartridges than worrying about where the bullets might land. The grim reality that what goes up must come down eventually becomes painfully clear to Niaz’s clan.

Niaz Khan Shinwari, the child actor acting playing Niaz Afridi is quite convincing as a young man torn between family loyalty and ambition for a better life. Unlike the unfortunate young actor in The Kite Runner, nothing untoward happens to his character on-screen which might threaten his safety in real life (although he is propositioned by a sexual predator on the streets of Peshwar).

The Pakistan of Lion is a scary place, for some reasons younger audiences might not fully understand. Afridi and his colleagues traffic in the most virulent anti-American rumors and 9-11 conspiracy theories imaginable (which of course absolve Bin Laden, whom they then contradictorily praise for standing up to the Americans), without hearing any word of contradiction. However, they should be able to appreciate the central father-son conflict that lies at the heart of the film.

Though Gilmour singles out Pakistan’s gun culture for rebuke, it seems to be more of a symptom of deeper societal problems, which require real education—that which fosters genuine understanding and tolerance. Quite successful at transporting audiences to such an isolated corner of the world—physically and ideologically, Lion is worth screening should the opportunity arise. It was an interesting selection for the NYICFF, which is now in its second weekend and continues next Saturday with more family friendly afternoon screenings.