By Talib Qizilbash 11 November 2009 73 Views No Comment
Son of a Lion opened in UK cinemas on November 6. While the story revolves around a young Pashtun boy in Pakistanís northwest, it incorporates themes that are universal. The young boy, Niaz Afridi, is born into a weapons-making family in Darra Adam Khel, a place where family, tradition and the gun are the pillars of society. But he wants to carve his own path: instead of following in his fatherís footsteps and joining the gun-making business, he wants an education. Itís something heíll have to fight for
Benjamin Gilmour filming Son of a Lion on location in Pakistan. Photo: Courtesy sonofalion.com
Why Pakistan and not Afghanistan for a story like this? In 2004 and 2005 the international news was all on Afghanistan and Iraq, Pakistan was still mostly on the periphery of the western media, unlike today?
Pakistan has held a great fascination for me since I first visited in 2001. It was love at first sight, I suppose. The people of Pakistan, their generosity, kindness, and hospitality is what differentiates it from most Western countries where people tend to be fixated with individualism, greed and material wealth. On my first visit to Peshawar, a man told me he kept his shop open only long enough to get enough money to feed his family that night. Then heíd close up and go spend his time with his kids. Quite simply, the values of people I met in Pakistan impressed me. As for filming there, it was precisely because the media focus was not on Pakistan that I saw the need to tell a Pakistani story. People now know how significant Pakistanís role is, and has been, in influencing events in Afghanistan.
Who facilitated your journey? You didnít just show up in the NWFP, did you?
Although the Pashtuns are famous for their hospitality and sheltering guests, itís pretty impossible to just show up in the NWFP as a Westerner and expect the people to open up, given their impression of foreigners in these times. Thanks to the damage done by Predator drones and US sponsorship of the Pakistani Army, Pathans are very wary of outsiders and their true motives. So, via some references, the cousin of the brother of the son of the father of the uncle of somebody, as is often the chain of links, came through. Afridis and Shinwaris in Darra Adam Khel and the surrounding towns assisted and protected me.
Where did the character of Niaz Afridi come from?
Niaz was based on a boy I had met in Darra, the arms manufacturing township in FATA, who was working on an AK47 when I first met him in 2001. At that time tourists could easily go to Darra and pay locals for the experience of shooting machine guns into the mountainside.
I was interested in the complex issue of child labour and particularly the juxtaposition of innocence and destruction contained in the image of a child holding a gun.
Young people, no matter what culture or nationality, often have a tug-of-war with their parents about the directions of their lives, especially in choosing professions (and often spouses too). But can you talk a bit about this universal theme: is it something that you also had to personally struggle with? Did you struggle against traditionalist parents?
Not at all. I agree it is a universal story, parents putting pressure on their children, which can lead to many problems as the child reaches adulthood. But it never happened to me, at least not that I am conscious of. My parents quite simply wanted me to be happy. In saying that, many of my schoolmates have been emotionally scarred by the idea that they were never good enough for their parents. In many parts of Asia where traditional cultures are clashing with very liberal Western ways of life, we see an additional strain on the parent-youth relationship. Itís a big turning point and many Pakistani expat families in Australia, UK and Europe, as you know struggle, with this.
Was it easy to get the local Pushtuns to trust you?
No, not really. It took hundreds of cups of tea and constant interrogation as to my motives until they realised I was doing something in their interest. Once they were convinced I was out to break the Pashtun and Muslim stereotypes propagated by governments and media in the West, they were behind me 100% and Son of a Lion became their film in a sense.
Did they have their own message for the world?
Son of a Lion is their message to the world. I mean, although I came to Pakistan with a script, it was soon abandoned and we started from scratch. I gave my cast full freedom to build the story and improvise dialogue. Their message to the world is this: we are not terrorists; we are peace-loving people who desperately desire progress. But this progress has been denied them; they have been kept poor, even manipulated by forces that wish to use them as pawns in dubious agendas. As a result of this poverty and manipulation, extremism has flourished. Radical elements in their midst have given the good Pashtun majority a bad reputation, which is unfair and hardly helpful. By casting all Pashtuns in the same light we isolate the entire ethnic group. This will not help them or us. Instead, Pashtuns need to be made part of their own progress, we need to nurture them and build them. Only when the taste of progress is on their lips and hope for their children in their hearts, only then will the tribes be inclined to ward off miscreants who shelter among them.
Photo: Courtesy sonofalion.com
You said, ďI gave my cast full freedom to build the story.Ē Can you provide some examples?
The script for the feature film I originally went to Pakistan to make was ridiculed by the locals I wanted to work with, and only then did I realise I would need to begin again, allowing the Pashtuns I was working with to take control of the story. What Britain and US and their allies are only now coming to realise in Southern Afghanistan is that Pashtuns cannot be Ďdirected.í My film making experience with them proved the same. None of them would deliver a line they were not happy with. So I gave it over to them. They built the story, with my assistance, and they improvised extensively. Many say the film feels like a documentary, even though it is acted. This effect came about no only because of the way it was shot, but because of the naturalistic way in which the actors worked.
Letís talk about that. You have received great feedback about the natural performances of the cast. How did you cast the film?
Auditions were not possible, as they would have involved exposing our mission. So our cast was taken from a small number of families in the collaborating clans. For the most part, we got some unexpectedly brilliant performances from non-professional actors.
What about communication? How did you manage to communicate with and direct your cast?
Many of the actors were illiterate and did not speak English, so this was tough. I mean, communication is inherent to directing. What usually happened was that I work-shopped the scene with Niaz, the lead actor, who spoke excellent English. He would then, in turn, discuss the scene with the other actors in Pashto. Calling cut after an exchange of dialogue was always hit and miss as I was never sure what they were talking about, whether in fact they were giving me the exchange I wanted or just talking about the weather. Only back in Sydney after the translation was done did we see that they had, for the most part, delivered what was needed to make the story work.
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