Son of a Lion opened last weekend in Sydney and Melbourne. Earlier this month Simon de Bruyn sat down with director Benjamin Gilmour and executive producer (and actor) Hayat Khan Shinwari to find out the challenges of filming undercover in Pakistan.

After charming audiences at the three major eastern state film festivals, Son of a Lion, the debut film by Sydney director Benjamin Gilmour, had a strong opening on eight screens in Sydney and Melbourne this week. In its first seven days it has taken over $3,850 per screen, the fifth highest per screen average among films in limited release, for a total of almost $31,000.

The road to the cinema has been a long one for Gilmour, and the challenges immense. Armed with a small digital camera and a desire to tell an inspiring story of the Pashtun people living in the tribal regions of Pakistan, near the border of Afghanistan, he disguised himself as a local to film undercover in a region where gunfire was a daily soundtrack.

In addition to his own tenacity and daring, Gilmour owes a great deal to Hayat Khan Shinwari, a local wealthy landowner who came on board as the film’s executive producer and was integral to casting, location scouting and keeping Gilmour hidden from the soldiers that patrolled the region. Hayat’s own son Niaz also played the title role.

Hayat tells INSIDEFILM he was impressed by the risks Gilmour was willing to take to tell the story about his community, although they initially though he was a “crazy man” making a small film for his family back home.

“He had no background in filmmaking, and we were really discouraged by the equipment that he had, one small camera, with no standby batteries and we had to go far away to shoot where there was no electricity to recharge them,” he laughs.

“Niaz and I were the only ones who spoke any English so there was this big communication gap. There was also a problem using non actors, who were my neighbours, as they felt embarrassed acting in front of people they knew, and who were family. The bully boy in the film, Pete, is very loud in real life and very tough but when he was on camera he couldn’t talk and became very shy. He sold bananas in the village and sometimes we would have to drive around the marketplace looking for the banana cart so he could come and shoot his scenes.”

Amusing casting problems aside, Hayat says the dangers of shooting in the region were very real. In the period of time since the filming, some of the extras in the film have since been kidnapped or shot, with the car used in the film blown up by a car bomb. With townspeople testing out their newly purchased guns in the main street, the crew would have to sometimes duck for cover to avoid falling bullets.

Gilmour explains it was impossible to use female actors who weren’t children or elderly.

“Something that hasn’t come out in any interviews is that in the original script there was a part for a woman to play Niaz’s mother in the film, but when we got there no females were interested in acting in the film, it is considered culturally inappropriate. Even in developed areas of Pakistan the only women on film are prostitutes, and when they can’t use them they use eunuchs,” he explains.

“So for us to use a woman ‘of age’ there was no way we could do that. Even in full burkas. Once we got mobbed in an Afghan camp; about 500 local men started surrounding us, and we started to get scared but we realized what they were doing is they were blocking my camera from swinging anywhere towards the camp where there was the possibility of filming a woman.

“This attitude partly comes from internet pornography – as a Western man with a camera equals vulgarity and exploitation. So we bomb them and we give them porn – welcome to our advanced culture,” he laughs.

Gilmour got around the problem in some scenes which needed women by using local men – and himself in his cameo role – dressed up in full burkas. He says the local men had some fun with this, although it wasn’t funny at the time.

“We had the scene in the minibus with three women in burkas, but they were three men. Hayat got very angry at them as they started yelling out the bus window to the men outside! You would never hear a peep from a woman under a burka in that part of the world in public,” he says.

“So here’s this minibus whizzing through the market with these men disguised in burkas leaning out the window and yelling “woo hoo”. They could have got us killed!”

Son of a Lion was produced by Carolyn Johnson, and edited by Alison McSkimming Croft. It is currently in limited release in Sydney and Melbourne, with other cities to follow.

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