Asalif (Asalif Tewold) is a yen-year-old boy from the outskirts of Addis Ababa, whose farming community was gentrified when the authorities claimed their land to build a housing project of apartment blocks upon. The result is that the community does not have a reliable method of making a living now, and the boy lives with his mother in a small hut/house near to the blocks, she scraping by making baskets and he, without a father, spending his days wandering around helping himself to the detritus of the modern world that he stumbles across. He knows he is poor, but he has a rich inner life as he imagines himself as a lion which is so much more powerful than he is and has so much more potential. Can Asalif realise this?
Mo Scarpelli is an Italian filmmaker who staged this particular project as a documentary, examining the life of this Ethiopian kid and bringing the hope to the screen that he could have a more promising existence than someone born into his circumstances might have otherwise. He's a bright boy, that's unmistakable, and bursting with personality, not in a precocious or bratty way, but where you recognise if he was given a few chances, as Scarpelli did by making him the focus of her movie, then the sky was the limit as to where he could go next. Yes, he could be representative of millions of children across the planet who similarly never were offered the opportunities to make something of their innate talent or ability, but there was more to this.
The simple fact of following one such individual around as he amused himself brought a lot home to the viewer, and you could read plenty into what, from some angles, could look like a selection of fairly basic slice of life scenes. Take Asalif's aptitude with technology, for instance, where he manages to set electronic equipment working again after it had been abandoned: sure, the director had helped the narrative along and staged some of this to give it shape, but this was not a straightforward drama, and there had to be the clay of real life to be moulded into this person's tale so that it was not pure invention from start to finish. Yet we are always aware that the odds are against this little dynamo who mixes up his fantasy of being that lion - the title translates to lion in the local lingo - with his ambitions of developing his skills with machinery.
He also has a perceived enemy, the hyena - he goes into the nearby woods and claims to have witnessed a giant embodiment of such an animal/symbol, though one presumes this is part of the staged storyline of Scarpelli. Then again, other scenes are equally telling and don't appear to be invention: his genuinely offended reaction to his best friend calling him a "motherfucker", so much so that he breaks off the friendship there and then, or going round to a pal's home and seeing his television set, which he stares at saucer-eyed as if he has never seen such magic before. And when his mother, in the final stretch, knocks him back down to earth - not physically, but with a dose of reality that if she ever abandoned him or died he would have precisely nothing in this world to hang onto, his tears and obvious upset are really quite moving. His mother also has the most telling line when a couple of "developers" start sniffing round: it's not hyenas they have to be wary of, it's people who have less than salubrious intentions. Overall, a glimpse into the underclass that remains positive despite itself. Music by Erik Skodvin.