Eleven-year-old Niaz (Niaz Khun Shinwari) who lives with his father (Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad) in a small town in northwest Pakistan, where for generations the local population have earned their living by producing weapons. It would seem that this is what the future holds for Niaz. But Niaz has different ambitions, and dreams of being allowed to go to school. His longing for an education marks Niaz as an outsider amongst the other young people within his community. And when finally, he refuses to follow in his father's footsteps, pent-up conflicts erupt within his family.

Father and son face a cultural divide in Pakistan.

Marking an impressive debut by Australian writer-director Benjamin Gilmour, Son of a Lion is an affecting father-and-son tale set among the ethnic Afghan community in the desolate North West frontier region of Pakistan.

At its core, it’s a powerful allegory of a society caught between its strict fundamentalist tradition, which sees TVs and computers as the devil’s work, and the mores of modern, Western-influenced culture.

It’s a remarkable feat of filmmaking by Gilmour, who, at considerable personal risk, lived for months among the Pashtun community in an area where foreigners aren’t welcome. He was taken under the wing of Hayat Khan Shinwari, the film’s executive producer, who housed and fed him and surrounded him with armed guards. In the credits, Gilmour acknowledges his screenplay was written in collaboration with the people of Kohat and Darra Adam Khel.

Widower Sher Alam Afridi (Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad) is determined to raise his 11-year-old son Niaz (Niaz Khun Shinwari) according to strict Islamic law. Encouraged by his broad-minded uncle Baktiyar Afridi (Baktiyar Ahmed Afridi), who lives in cosmopolitan Peshawar, the illiterate Niaz is keen to go to school.

That rankles Sher Alam, who, like his father, didn’t have a formal education, and insists Niaz continue to work with him in his gun shop, setting off heated confrontations between father and son and between the brothers.

With documentary-like realism, the film shows how the community is divided over political and international issues. Some folks say they would welcome Osama Bin Laden in their homes as a guest, not as a terrorist; others wish he’d go to hell. A few people express the bizarre conspiracy theories that the US caused the 9/11 attacks as a pretext to invade Iraq. Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai is scorned as America’s puppet. One laments that the vast majority of Muslims are peace-loving and not supporters of terrorism as they are sometimes portrayed.

Gilmour coaxes superbly natural performances from his non-professional cast, particularly Niaz Khun Shinwari (the exec producer’s son) as the sensitive boy, and Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad as his well-meaning but blinkered father. The soundtrack by Amanda Brown, a mix of traditional instruments and modern rhythms, beautifully underscores the shifting moods and locales. Generous extras include an audio commentary by the director, Niaz and Hayat, deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes footage.

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1 hour 32 min
Wed, 05/06/2009 - 11