Interview with 'Son of a Lion' Director Benjamin Gilmour: 'Pakistan's Pashtuns Just Want to Protect Their Way of Life'
Australian filmmaker Benjamin Gilmour's debut movie tells the story of a young Pashtun boy who wants to escape working in his father's weapons workshop and go to school. Gilmour speaks to SPIEGEL ONLINE about his attempt to combat negative stereotypes about the Pashtun people.
For most people in the West, Pakistan's remote tribal region bordering Afghanistan held little interest --- until Osama bin Laden and his fellow al-Qaida fanatics decided to hole up there. The tough terrain and the Pashtun people's tribal code of hospitality has provided them with protection ever since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan over six years ago.
Australian filmmaker Benjamin Gilmour visited the region before the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks and was captivated by the local Pashtun people. Horrified by the post-9/11 negative images of the tribal areas in the Western media, he decided to go back secretly and make a film about the people that showed them in their true light.
He and his local assistant director managed to shoot a story about a young 11-year-old boy who dreams of escaping his father's weapons workshop and going to school. The simple story, which was co-written by the local people in the village of Darra Adam Khel, is a delicate portrait of a father-and-son relationship, which portrays the local people as well-informed about politics and far from supporters of the Taliban.
SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke to Gilmour about the challenges of filming in a region that is closed off to foreigners, and about his attempt to counteract negative stereotypes about the tribal people of north-western Pakistan.
Question: Your film is set in the tribal region of Pakistan, near the Afghan border. How did you first discover this area?
Benjamin Gilmour: I was travelling in India and realized we were very close to Pakistan. We ended up in Peshawar near the Afghan border. From the moment we were in Pakistan it captured our imaginations. A lot of the villages felt like they hadn't changed in 2,000 years. I just thought it was really romantic.
Question: And how did you end up in the village of Darra Adam Khel, where your film is set?
Gilmour: We heard about this village that was solely concerned with making weapons. We managed to get permits -- this was back August 2001 and you could still go there. We're not gun nuts or anything but we decided to go there, and we ended up firing AK47s at 10 rupees a bullet.
Gilmour: We saw how the young boys in the village were involved in the weaponry industry. There were Afghan refugee boys who were catching the hot shells that were expelled from guns, it was not just a game for them but they would receive one rupee for every shell so that was a way they could make money for their families at the expense of their education. And we also saw little kids as young as five or six working in the workshops.
Question: At the time you were working as a paramedic in Sydney. How did you turn to filmmaking?
Gilmour: I was burned out after seven years working as a paramedic, and went to London and started working on a film unit. I was even a medic for Sharon Stone at one stage. I was watching all the units and started hanging around with the camera unit and was asking them questions. I guess it was the old way people used to learn before film school.
Question: So you had never held a camera before?
Gilmour: No, never. I never even watched that many films! We never had a TV when I was young.
Question: And when did you started thinking about making a film about Pakistan?
Gilmour: I read in the papers about terrorism and these turbaned AK47-wielding tribesmen in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I thought, I have to share my true experience of these people and what the Pashtuns are really like.
Question: So what are they really like?
Gilmour: They were being depicted as terrorists and, yes, the majority of the Taliban are Pashtun but the majority of the Pashtun are not Taliban. And unfortunately that wasn't coming across in the media. That was really disturbing because I found Pashtuns to be incredibly wonderful, generous, hospitable, kind, peace-loving people.
Question: How did you start to work on the film?
Gilmour: I wrote this script, 120 pages, and went to Pakistan into the tribal areas and met with Pashtun people.
Question: Did you go there with equipment and a crew?
Gilmour: No, not initially, I just went with the script.
Question: How did you manage to film in Darra?
Gilmour: I made some friends in Lahore, in the Punjabi areas, they knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who lived in Darra. And I ended up there.
Question: It was difficult to get into the area after 9/11. How did you manage to get in?
Gilmour: I think that initial shoot, that initial time in Pakistan was eight months, and six months of that time was spent building relationships, being a guest in people's homes until I ended up there.
Question: What about the language difficulties?
Gilmour: Well, English is actually the national language of Pakistan, left over from British colonial rule. I tried learning a bit of Pashto, but it's very difficult. I knew more Urdu.
Question: How did you manage to stay in the tribal areas?
Gilmour: I grew a beard. In Pashtun areas I could blend in because they have pale skin and blue and green eyes. I observed how they walked and some Pashtun friends showed me how to walk and said I should spit and act rough and eat with my hands.
Question: How did you get in?
Gilmour: There were numerous roadblocks and I had no permits. There was no way they would issue permits to foreign film makers or to journalists -- even Pakistani journalists can't get into the tribal areas. It's very, very sensitive. So I knew I was going to get no help from the authorities, in fact, they would just be obstructive.
Question: Why do they not want outsiders getting into the tribal areas?
Gilmour: They have had strict instructions from higher up. They don't want the Pashtuns to be depicted in a positive way. Because the government there -- at the behest of Washington -- is pursuing the terrorists that are holed up in a region, who are benefiting from the Pashtun hospitality which is part of the tribal code.
Question: Why are the Pashtun people protecting the terrorists?
Gilmour: The foreign fighters, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, know they can get protection because the Pashtun are bound by this strict tribal code. Their principle code is hospitality, and another code that closely follows revenge requires them to give shelter to fugitives. So even though the majority of Pashtuns do not agree with Osama bin Laden's ideas, they are bound culturally to protect the fighters. And if someone comes looking for them they will fight off the authorities to the death.
Question: Do the people in the area fear that the American troops are going to come over from Afghanistan at some stage?
Gilmour: I am horrified by the thought of American and NATO troops coming into the tribal areas. You have almost 4 million people, civilians, who carry arms as a way of life. But they could be considered combatants in an instant, depending on who is doing the interpreting. And they would fight to the death. They would hate nothing more than foreign soldiers coming into their area.
Question: What influence does the current political situation in Pakistan have?
Gilmour: You have the extremely unpopular dictator, (Pakistani President Pervez) Musharraf. He is doing questionable things in the tribal areas and the Americans are offering their troops. That just scares me. I know the Pashtuns, all they want to do is protect their way of life. Americans talk about defending their way of life, Pashtuns are exactly the same. They just want to protect their way of life and their freedom and they will fight.
Question: How did you come up with the final script?
Gilmour: Well, it really ended up coming from them. We went with the first script and my right-hand man Hayat Khan Shinwari, who was my executive producer and my assistant director, took one look at the script and laughed. It was a great source of amusement, they used to sit around late at night in a group reading the script, laughing.
Question: So what did you do differently then?
Gilmour: We decided to throw out that script and work with the Pashtun people. There was a lot of collaboration involved. The basic story remained the same, the father and son, with the son wanting to go school. But, in terms of individual scenes and dialogue, they had freedom. We ended up telling them to have a few key piece of dialogue in each scene -- to move the story forward -- but the rest was improvised.
Question: Like the scene where the men of the village discuss politics and whether they would give refuge to Osama bin Laden?
Gilmour: Yes, I want to emphasize that. It was them speaking. It wasn't words I imposed on them.
Question: How did you find your cast?
Gilmour: We couldn't do casting sessions. I got most of the cast imposed on me, the boy is the son of Hayat Khan Shinwari, and the grandmother is the boy's grandmother.
Question: Was the actor who played the father related to this family?
Gilmour: No, he was played by Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad, who was a major mujahideen fighter in Afghanistan. In one scene he shows his son how he took out a whole Russian platoon with a bazooka. That really happened. When the Americans invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban sent word to him to come and fight but he said no, he had seen enough bloodshed and enough death.
Question: And were you concerned about what might happen to the people in the film?
Gilmour: I was and still am concerned that they could get into trouble. But they wanted to do the film. They said there was nothing in the film that was insulting to Islam, to Pakistan or to the Pashtun people.
Siobhán Dowling attended a group interview with Benjamin Gilmour.
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2008
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH