Son of a Lion looks beyond the hostilities of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier, giving voice to the region’s unfairly maligned people. Its visiting director, Benjamin Gilmour, speaks of his guerrilla filmmaking experience to BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM.


Son of a Lion is a debut feature by Australian paramedic Benjamin Gilmour. Covertly filmed in the rugged Northwest Frontier of Pakistan, the film tells the tale of a Pashtun father and son – the father, a fierce warrior who had helped expel the mujahedin in the ‘80s, and a son who doesn’t want to follow the path of his father. He’d rather go to school, and a battle of wills develop between the competing wants and needs. By using non-actors who collaborated on the script, and filming on the fly under the nose of the Pakistani authorities, the film has a rare authenticity. Importantly, Gilmour manages to give voice to a much maligned group in the Western world. The film’s focus is the people, not the stunning landscape because as Gilmour says “we know the landscape, we don’t know the people.”

It does have to be asked how an Aussie ends up making a film in a region in Pakistan that is much-maligned in the West and is closed-off to those from the West. Let alone those armed with a film camera, hoping to make a film there. And it’s clear from some of Gilmour’s life experiences, he’s lived a life that most people would consider adventurous. “How does a Sydney paramedic end up in such a dangerous locale? One could well imagine I am a crazed adrenalin junkie and I cannot deny my endeavours in life have always been somehow thrilling but this has always been a by-product of the paths I choose. I’ve worked with Mother T in India straight out of school, followed by the Burmese military intelligence while writing about children in chain gangs, have worn flack jackets as a paramedic in the streets of Jo’burg, but I am not an adrenalin junkie, all these projects have had a distinct humanitarian purpose.”

For Gilmour, the Northwest Frontier was “like finding the holy grail of destinations. Travel has been a futile search for me over many years for places where history has been preserved, places showing a resistance to rapid-fire development of the West, places made up of people unwilling to buy into the money-driven trash-chasing modern world. Here it was, the largest tribal society in the world. Like sets from Lawrence of Arabia, villages I visited essentially as a backpacker in August 2001 had that orientalist charm.” However, as Gilmour suggests, things changed a month later globally. “Orientalism, of course, was once our obsession in the first half of the 20th Century, before we decided to hate all Muslims for the actions of a disgruntled minority. I guess the place swept me up in its romanticism and then, after 9/11, the when the Taliban were removed from official power in Afghanistan, all their fellow ethnic Pashtuns in Pakistan were dragged down with them.” This has greatly affected the Pashtun in Afghanistan too, and Gilmour mentions that there are very few Pashtun in the US selected government there. “The ones that got in are mostly warlords, very nasty people. Naturally, as a result, the popularity of the Taliban has been rising again in much of the country.” Gilmour argues that “we have failed that country in so many ways, and through these failures in Afghanistan, the people of Pakistan are also now suffering the fallout and a creeping extremist threat.”

“Pashtuns cannot be directed. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Timur, the British; they will all attest to this. It was only after a period of infuriating frustration that I learnt the only way to compel a Pashtun is to let them take some control, be patient, take tea and don’t try manipulation or force. Rebellion is their middle name, they love their freedom.”


Gilmour’s travels led him to consider making a film about the region’s peoples. “My reason for going back was to do my bit to somehow counter-act the negative stereotypes not only of Pashtuns, but of Islamic people as a whole. And intelligent, seemingly open-minded people were just eating this fallacy up without question.” He wrote a script while working as Sharon Stone’s medic in London. However, as soon as he got back to Pakistan, the script was thrown out. “It was rather naff because I had very limited exposure to Pashtuns and I had only visited them briefly in 2001. When I eventually hooked up with local Pashtuns in Kohat, the town I shot most of my footage in, they found my original script highly amusing and took it out regularly to read for the hilarity of it.” The newer version of the script was collaborated on by his actors who brought their own experiences to the story formation. “Sher Alam [who plays the father] was originally a member of the mujahedin in 1980s Afghanistan and tells a story of blowing up an entire Russian military company with a rocket launcher. He almost died on many occasions and the scene in which he shows his scars is the real deal.”

However, Gilmour wasn’t able to choose his actors, and directing actors is one of the more difficult things about being a director. And given that this was Gilmour’s first film, there’d be no doubt that working this through would have been particularly challenging. “Pashtuns cannot be directed. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Timur, the British; they will all attest to this. It was only after a period of infuriating frustration that I learnt the only way to compel a Pashtun is to let them take some control, be patient, take tea and don’t try manipulation or force. Rebellion is their middle name, they love their freedom. The other complication was that they insisted on doing the film for free. They were, essentially, volunteering their time. It is very difficult to make demands of a volunteer. The call time would be 9am, already much later than Western call times, and one of two of the actors may turn up at midday or 1pm with very little enthusiasm and a misplaced costume. This was a typical day. Niaz, my main star, developed star syndrome after the first two weeks and began calling action and cut himself and waltzing about like some kind of prince. There were countless moment of chaos due to the four or five languages we were using on set.” However his actors were risking more than a bit by simply acting in the film. “There is a possibility that those who co-operated with me will be in danger from the authorities who have warned people not to assist journalists, as well as certain extremists who may interpret the film as opposition to their agendas. These risks of course are ones the Pashtuns I worked with were willing to take, they are a proud people who conduct themselves with head held high and fear nothing. They have said that my success will be their success.”

And, Gilmour does attest to some problems with the authorities. “Yes, I had some nerve-wracking moments, check point searches etc, and was also placed under house arrest in Lahore. But these things just strengthened my resolve and did not scare me off. I reconsidered the whole enterprise regularly, but this was only due to the fear of failure, not of any physical threat.” In Peshawar, for example, where part of the film is set, “while shooting Niaz on the street we were stopped by a police van and we only got out of that fix when Niaz told them he was the police commander’s nephew. I don’t know if it was even true, such is the audaciousness of Pashtuns. But it worked.” Part of the problem with the authorities stem from the fact that “the Pakistan Army has been waging a very unhelpful war against various villages they accuse of harbouring militants, bombing seminaries full of innocent kids, not to mention the regular wedding ceremonies copping hellfire missiles from US drones. It is in Pakistan’s interest not to allow journalists into the area and to keep a tight handle on the information about their offensives. No permits are issued to writers and filmmakers and the like, so I had to go in disguised, grew a beard, wore trad clothing and travelled sandwiched in minibuses with locals, my camera gear sewn up in a Hessian sack. It was the only way to get passed check points.”

“It doesn’t matter to me at all that the ‘making-of’ process has attracted so much attention, and... threatens to overshadow the actual film. I suppose this is because beyond any entertainment value, Son of a Lion was made first with the intention of giving this maligned ethnic group a voice. So long as either the film or its making attracts media attention I am happy as we have achieved what we set out to do, which is to correct an imbalance of information about these people.”


But Gilmour does admit to not being scared during the whole enterprise. “It sounds really cringe-worthy, but I am scared of very little. I don’t want to die, but for some reason I am not scared of coming close. I suppose this from my experiences in my ambulance work and travels revealing to me that fear is, in the vast majority of cases, completely irrational. There are very few foreign travellers to Pakistan post 9/11, despite it being one of the most beautiful countries on earth. Why? A mere handful of foreigners have died there in the last seven years, I felt no danger from the people at all while I was there.” The legendary code of Paktunwali, which all Pashtuns live by was extended to Gilmour as well. It “was a great benefit to me, just as it is, I suppose, to Osama bin Laden. Hospitality is the first principle of this honour code, and thus I was very well looked after. I was provided with a compound, a cook, a servant and as many actors and extras I desired. Would we do the same here if some guy from Pakistan rocked up at our house, inviting him in for six months and fulfilling his every unusual request?”

The mention of Osama bin Laden derives from the demonisation in the West – reportedly this is an area where bin Laden went hiding. However, as Gilmour shows in the film, the issues are far complex than this. A scene where a bunch of men sit around and talk politics was part of the strategy to show this, and Gilmour left his actors alone to improvise the scene. “The scenes of men taking politics was not scripted at all. It was important to include these if I wanted the film to let Pashtuns have at least a little platform to tell the world what they think. They are aghast at their image in the world, and they know it is not unfounded, but every religion has its fanatics. We in the West have embraced a classic fallacy; judging and entire group based no the actions of a very very tiny minority. It just depresses me how many of us buy into the bullshit and have developed this fear and even hatred of Islam. Yes, they want to rectify this, but they don’t quite know how.”

Gilmour states that many Pashtun were incredibly politically aware too, and this has derived from government after government failing them. “Unlike us in our comfy homes with our late lifestyle so insulated from the effects of war, it is in the interest of Pashtuns to care, because they are directly affected by these things. I find it quite distressing to think that while I remain free and content in Sydney, our government has troops in a country where NATO bombs have been responsible for many civilian deaths, where we shoot first and ask questions later, where we storm through in our trucks kicking up dust on impoverished villagers who have seen virtually nothing of the aid that was promised them so long ago. So, yes, there were little bursts of hostility. They all wanted to put a bullet into [John] Howard, I won’t deny that. And the most wizened old man in his mountain mud-shack will know who Pauline Hanson was. Despite this, I was looked after in grand style and with complete love, that’s how gracious and forgiving these people are.” This was part of the reason why Gilmour made this into a film. He had already published a book about his travels, Warrior Poets. “Film is a terrific medium for reaching the masses, although the masses generally look for trash when it comes to entertainment, or at least films that spend one hundred million on marketing because they know that people need to be told what to see.”

The film’s making has been so memorable and attracted so much attention, it has tended to overshadow the film itself. While being a good marketing tool, I do wonder if Gilmour worries about the film being lost in the backstory. “Son of a Lion as its own entity hopes to be an engaging story making the audience think again about their perceptions of the Pashtun people of Pakistan, so commonly cast as members of the Taliban or as terrorists. It doesn’t matter to me at all that the ‘making-of’ process has attracted so much attention, and as you say, threatens to overshadow the actual film. I suppose this is because beyond any entertainment value, Son of a Lion was made first with the intention of giving this maligned ethnic group a voice. So long as either the film or its making attracts media attention I am happy as we have achieved what we set out to do, which is to correct an imbalance of information about these people.”