SON OF A LION
(SECRET) POSTCARD FROM PASHTUN
A Sydney-based ambulance paramedic, Benjamin Gilmour became interested in
filmmaking while working as a unit nurse on UK film sets. A seasoned traveller
and writer, Gilmour fell in love with Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP)
when he first went there in early 2001. In 2006, he returned to make a feature
film, Son Of A Lion; here he explains how he had to make it undercover and at
great risk to all involved – and why the risk was worth it.
Pakistan is a stunningly beautiful country famous for its forests, its coastline
of beaches and the best slice of the Himalayas. Sadly there are few tourists at
all these days because everyone fears the place. This is a pity as the vast
majority of Pakistanis – especially ethnic Pashtuns – make for delightful
company and their hospitality is second-to-none.
Like a handful of adventurous travellers, in August 2001, a month before 9/11,
my girlfriend and I test fired AK47s in the dusty gun-manufacturing town of
Darra Adam Khel which is part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA),
in the north-west of the country. This is wild territory full of turbaned
warriors, mud-walled fortress compounds, stark mountains, drug smuggling and
vendettas that utterly captured our imaginations. The place seemed uninterested
in the modern world.
Gunsmiths in Darra, most of them from the Afridi clan, use reverse engineering
to make firearms out of scrap metal so precisely that experts can’t tell the
difference. Locals joke they could produce anything but an Apache helicopter
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.
Sipping tea in the workshops of this unique village we saw young apprentices at
work as they put together everything from small calibre handguns to
rocket-propelled grenade launchers, which months later inspired me to pursue the
idea of telling the story of these boys in the language of film.
"One story in particular stood out"
One story in particular stood out. Visiting Darra Adam Khel for the first
time we had met a young boy about 11 years old who seemed different. He worked
in his father’s arms factory, but while his friends chased the hot shells
ejected from AK47s that were being tested in the air and were catching them in
their skull caps, this boy stood back. He was quiet, solitary, watching us
instead. This was the boy Son Of A Lion was based upon.
The basic premise of the film was always about a boy unlike his peers who wanted
to go to school rather than spend his days making weapons. But the actual plot
of the film changed considerably. I did have a script initially, a 110-page
feature length script, but when my contacts in Pakistan read it they laughed at
me and I had to scrap it and start afresh. A close collaboration with the locals
in writing the story and dialogues gave us more authenticity, so I was not
precious about losing the work I’d already put in. A few scenes, like the
opening scene, are still almost exactly as I wrote them in the initial script.
My motive to make this film was not in fact because I wanted to make a film at
all. Instead it was to try to balance-out the perception people in the West have
of Muslims as a whole after the events of September 11. The way I saw it, on
that day, a major religion and more than a billion people around the world who
followed it had been side-swiped. Being a great admirer of film, I thought this
would be an excellent way to make a contribution to opposing Islamophobia,
because many ordinary people around the world simply do not have any experience
of Muslim people beyond the evening news.
Although the Pashtuns featured in Son Of A Lion have no direct link with al
Qaeda, former members of the Taliban do appear in the film. I never feared any
of these people, because they were on my side. They trusted that my motive was
to give the West an insight into the world of the ethnic Pashtun.
The tribal area in which Son Of A Lion was shot, especially the gun-market of
Darra Adam Khel, is completely out of bounds to foreigners and no permits have
been issued to journalists or travellers for a number of years. Due to the risk
of being caught by the Pakistan Army, the tribal police known as khasadars, many
of whom are also Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) agents, and the local police,
I had to shoot much of the film undercover.
Son Of A Lion is pure, guerrilla filmmaking. Besides the risk of being sprung by
the authorities, the extremists in the area, including the new Pakistani Taliban
and al-Qaeda remnants, may well have mistaken me for a foreign spy and dealt
with me accordingly. Cultural barriers also existed, such as the common opinion
that all Western filmmakers want to do is exploit women, an opinion probably
informed by the effect that access to MTV and internet porn is having on the
conservative peoples of the region.
"to find relatively safe places"
So it was necessary to find relatively safe places such as inside walled
compounds, empty mountainsides and valleys to shoot many of the longer scenes
with dialogue. This minimized the number of scenes we needed to shoot in the
actual Darra bazaar.
For safety reasons, we shot on a small mini-DV camera – we're talking Sony PD150
– to limit the chance of detection. This is a limitation cinematically, but I
think the observational 'documentary' feel adds to the film's authenticity. In
saying that, I am not apologising for the fact that the picture resolution is
different to a film shot on glorious Kodak 35mm. No-one, no matter how big and
powerful the studio behind them, could have shot in Pakistan's tribal areas on
film stock with the necessary crew to get good results. Just ask those who made
The Kite Runner – that film was shot in China. The fact is, we are lucky to have
this film at all. It is the only feature film of its kind to come out of the
tribal areas of the frontier in as long as anyone can remember.
Because it was shot in secrecy, we couldn’t really have auditions. A couple of
French journalists had been arrested months earlier in the same area for trying
to film a ‘fake’ al-Qaeda training camp which had ruined it for anyone else with
more noble intentions. The fixer working with these Frenchmen had disappeared.
So, people in Kohat and Darra were always mentioning this and asking me what
would happen if they got caught helping me make the film. Of course, I had no
answer. As a foreigner my diplomatic representation would allow me to get out
alive (I hoped). But in Pakistan people suspected of conspiring with foreigners
tend to vanish. Sometimes their bodies are found, other times not.
In places like Australia, America and Europe there is no shortage of people
willing to act in films. But in the conservative tribal areas of Pakistan it is
the opposite. Beyond issues of safety, there were other reasons few people want
to be in a film. Many people are against photography and film because they see
these things as idolatry, as a distraction from God. It’s true that our Western
celebrity culture worships the stars, so I could kind of see their point. Then
there was the risk of inadvertently having a woman walk into frame, even if she
was covered completely in a burqa.
Our EP and local fixer Hayat Khan Shinwari ‘selected’ many of the ‘actors’ for
me, his son playing the main role, his own mother playing the boy’s grandmother
and his business partner playing the uncle. I had little choice in the matter.
The rights for release in Pakistan are controlled by Executive Producer Hayat
Khan Shinwari, which was pretty much the only request he made in the entire time
I spent there. He made this request not because he wants to earn money from
releasing the film in his own country, but because he wants to control when, if
ever, and how, the film is released in Pakistan. This is to ensure the safety of
all those involved. The risks are still present, however, because he will never
stop pirated copies making it onto the market there. I have to accept that the
entire cast was willing to put themselves at risk, but it was a risk they were
willing to take in order to share their lives with the world.
According to my contacts the Taliban is vying for control of Darra Adam Khel. It
would be impossible to return to the region right now and even some parts of
Kohat, in the settled areas, are said to be under Taliban control.
More distressing is that earlier this year the Pakistani army and Taliban forces
have had violent clashes in and around Darra Adam Khel. There have been many
deaths, and many more have fled the area, including members of our cast and
"a rare glimpse"
I hope Son Of A Lion will allow the viewer a rare glimpse into the Pashtun
psyche. I believe a military solution to extremism and the rising Taliban in the
tribal areas will not work. Pashtuns are a group of freedom-loving people who
want to be left alone. Honour lies in freedom, and an Afghan will not willingly
tolerate being ruled by a foreigner. A famous saying goes ‘that you can coax a
Pashtun into hell, but you can't push him into heaven.’ It only takes a single
foreign soldier to walk in uninvited onto Pashtun tribal land to provoke a
violent backlash and shots being fired from guns that would never otherwise be
Published August 21, 2008
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