At the start of “When Lambs Become Lions,” a man who goes by X can be seen playfully roughhousing with people in a small town in Northern Kenya, stopping by a store to buy candies for his son and soon watching over the archery of Lukas, one of the men who works for him in the field, concluding not unreasonably from the evidence provided, “I’m like the king,” when it’s clear everyone defers to him.

However, it’s a humble kingdom with mosquito nets protecting his family at night while they sleep and the park rangers tasked with protecting elephants in the region eager to bring him down during the day as his profession as a poacher has afforded a life more bountiful than most in the area, yet puts him firmly on the wrong side of the law. In Jon Kasbe’s provocative nonfiction thriller, that distinction would mean less than you would think as the filmmakers draws a fascinating parallel between X and his cousin Asan, one of the rangers, who both can be seen making moral equivocations under the weight of dire financial circumstances in a region rife with poverty.

When the ivory trade remains one of the few sources of income, providing not only for those who kill the elephants for their tusks, but an all-too-rare steady salary for those willing to put their lives on the line to protect them, profit motives can be seen overtaking human considerations on both ends of the spectrum and remarkably, Kasbe is able to capture each side of the equation to show the extraordinarily complex socioeconomic conditions that surround such an obviously horrific practice and inform how it persists with no end in sight. Equally impressive is how engrossing “When Lambs Become Lions” becomes in spite of such an unpalatable subject, unfolding in a style that neither betrays its gravity yet fulfills its full cinematic potential as the cat-and-mouse-like game between X and Asan looks no different than a new film from Michael Mann or Michael Bay.

As Kasbe told me recently, that may have to do with the intensive research he did before ever turning on the camera, essentially having life become rehearsals for the film he’d eventually make. Following a celebrated international festival run that began last year at the Tribeca Film Festival, “When Lambs Become Lions” is now making its way to theaters across the country and the filmmaker reflected on the years he put into his debut feature, the moral quandaries inherent in making a documentary about poaching and often being a one-person crew who was required to cover two sides of a story.

How did you get interested in this?

Honestly, at the beginning, I wasn’t interested in it. I had done three projects in Kenya before this, very short documentary projects, and through those, I had gotten a lot of friends in the area and they were urging me to come and look at this. They felt like the films that had explored poaching in Kenya had been really simplifying the issue into this very good versus evil narrative and they were seeing a different reality. That led to me to meet one of their friends whose name was X. At the beginning, he was just someone to learn more about the situation from and I went into it kind of nervous and unsure what he’d be like, just knowing that he’s an ivory dealer and in that first meeting with X, I was blown away. I came out of it feeling like he’s really honest and charming — he was making me laugh in this initial meeting — and I could not stop thinking about him.

Then it slowly evolved. It was a process of recognizing the perspective in this situation that was not being talked about and that was local hunters. [There’s] this vilifying of that side rather than trying to hear them out and to understand why they were making the choices they were and that to me was a space that could be filled. Once we identified that, we went full force, spending a lot of time with X in the community and his family. It was about eight months in when he told me his cousin was a wildlife ranger and I was totally blown away because that’s when it started to click in that these aren’t actually separate sides that are at battle with each other. This is a community that is feeling forced into one direction or the other and doesn’t really have the infrastructure to have opportunities outside of protecting or hunting, so it was a process of each day realizing it’s much more complicated than I could’ve ever imagined and there was a perspective that wasn’t being heard.

Is it true you spent a year on the phone with X before actually meeting him?

Totally, and in some ways, it’s a lot easier to talk on the phone. There’s a lot of separation. And when we talked on the phone, we didn’t talk about what he did. He didn’t want to talk about poaching or anything illegal. It was all about family. It was a lot about soccer. It was a lot of about what we were eating, where we lived and what the weather was like, really basic things. That was nice because when we met, we had some shared things to talk about. He knew about my family and I knew his kids by name and had talked to his wife before, so it helped. But the first meeting brought a new element to it because for the first time we were acknowledging what he was doing and that was really intense because I went into it thinking he was going to be secretive and he wasn’t at all. He was really direct and he was saying things to me like we’re out there killing elephants, but the rangers are out there killing humans. He’s telling a story about how his father was killed when he was 10 years old and his father was shot eight times in the head and it was just swept under the rug and there were no legal repercussions for what happened and I think he felt a bitterness towards the system because of that. Yet at the same time, he’s a part of the system and he’s choosing to continue his role in it and in a lot of ways, following in his father’s footsteps.

As much as the subjects have to get comfortable in front of your camera, do you have to get comfortable with what you wind up filming, some of which would be considered illegal or immoral?

Yeah, I wouldn’t say I ever got comfortable with it, but I definitely started to understand it better. I went on 10 hunts total and the first three, I didn’t have a camera on me. That was a part of getting access to these guys and building the relationship. They didn’t want me to take a camera out at first. They wanted see whether I could hang and keep up mentally and physically with what they were doing and I also think it was an opportunity for them to see, “Is Jon going to turn us in or is he going to be able to keep this to himself?” And those first three were some of the worst experiences I’ve had in my life, witnessing that because when you have a camera and you’re filming something, it creates a separation between you and the reality. You have a heightened sense of meaning in what you’re doing [because] you’re saving this moment to share with people all over the world. Once that’s no longer there, you’re just a part of what’s going on, so the first three were awful.

After that when I was able to be there with a camera and film it, it wasn’t as emotional or as intense for me. There was a separation. And then by the end, I understood the stakes. I knew what would happen for X. I knew what would happen for Luka. I knew what would happen for Asan if they weren’t successful. So I wouldn’t say I was ever comfortable with what they were doing — it was always painful and I always had this irk in my gut of should I stop this from happening — but I was always just trying to remind myself, this would happen whether I was here or not and it was not my place to interfere with it. My job here is to do everything I can to capture it honestly and in as raw a way as possible so that people can see the reality that’s not being talked about.

Capturing those parallels between the poachers and the protectors, you’re able to cover both sides of any given situation throughout the film. Does that make it difficult to devise a way to shoot?

Yeah, one of the beautiful parts of this process was that I had time. This took place over the course of three-and-a-half years, and the first eight months, I wasn’t really filming. I was just spending time and hanging out and getting to know these guys. That’s the time I realized there were so many things happening in different places that to really cover it in the way that I wanted to so it would be an immersive verite film that’s present tense, that isn’t necessarily talking about the past or thinking about the future, but is happening right now in front of us. To do that, I would need to have a second camera at times, so any time I went on a hunt, I wanted to have another cinematographer with the ranger unit and when Asan’s wife was getting closer to giving birth, I had to make sure we had another camera to be able to be with Asan and another to be with his wife because I knew that he spends 28 days out of the month with his ranger unit and I knew it was very unlikely that he’d be at home when she went into labor. So I found Alex Pritz, a local cinematographer in Nairobi who I brought up to do a lot of shooting and then there’s David Bolen, another shooter who would come in at times, but this was very sensitive and we weren’t able to bring in big crews, so it was mostly just me and sometimes a fixer and these additional cinematographers when it made sense.

Despite the limitations, the style of the film is really dynamic. What was it like figuring out how to shoot this?

I remember the first time I saw “Cartel Land,” that was a really inspiring moment for me because I realized documentary doesn’t have to be information and context-based. It can be unfolding and emotional and that can be the priority. You can create an experience that resembles a lot of what fiction narrative films feel like where you just get lost in the story, and that’s really what I wanted to do here. When I met with X and Asan, one of the things I told them early on is, “I want to be there for everything. Of course, I see this as a collaboration and I want to make you feel what we’re filming and what we’re showing is representative of your reality, but I want to have the option to be there for everything and go through as much as I can and try to understand what life is like.”

That required just a ton of shooting, which is why this film took three-and-a-half years in the field. I came out of it with 700 hours of footage, and when it came time for the edit, we could’ve made a hundred different types of film, but at the end of the day, we kept going back to, “Does this feel representative of what the experience actually felt like when we were in the field?” And we would look to a lot of fiction references and try to figure out our story arcs because there are so many different directions it could go in. We were finding films like “Heat” and shows like “Breaking Bad” to be really helpful where we had these characters that on the surface may be doing things that may not necessarily agree with, but they’re still people we care about and they’re still people whose choices we want to see unfold and try to understand why they’re feeling the way they are.

I thought of “Heat” when I saw that first meeting of X and Asan and that build-up to it – what was it like to figure that out structurally? I assume in your own experience, they met up before.

Yeah, one thing when you pull the curtain back on the process that I don’t think people realize [is that] I don’t think there’s anything in the film where the first time I shot it, it was the first time I saw it. Almost all these moments of tension, I was there for all of those without a camera first, so that put me in a position where I’m seeing it for the second time or the third time or the fifth time. It’s not like this strange occurrence that there’s someone here filming it because I’ve already lived it with them in a way, so that’s what gave us this ability to get these intimate moments that feel very natural and real where the camera feels invisible because they were used to me being there. And a lot of the initial times things would happen, I wouldn’t shoot. Sometimes I would have the camera with me, and just have it turned off and have it in the room, so people would be used to having this new object in the space.

So in terms of that meeting with X and Asan that you see in the film, when that happened, I wasn’t personally surprised. I had seen this happen before and I expected that it would happen again, but in the film that’s the first time the audience is seeing it, so we structured it in a way and gave it this energy and I remembered the first time I saw Asan give information to X, it was a shock because it seemed like a betrayal of everything I understood about who he was. That was still at a point where I still didn’t fully understand the complexity and just how desperate they both were and how much they needed each other, so that started to sink in and it slowly started to hit me, if I was in Asan’s situation, would I be doing anything different? Like if my wife just had a kid and I hadn’t been paid in two months and I needed to get food for my child and my cousin was giving me a lifeline, an opportunity to make money to do that, I don’t know I would’ve done anything different than he did.

Was there anything that happened in the course of shooting that changed your ideas of what this could be?

I was going into it trying to strip away all my sense of what this could be. I think I went into this story with pretty traditional preconceived notions around the ideas of the poachers are bad and the rangers are good, rangers are trying to save the animals because they believe that’s the right thing to do and the poachers are trying to kill the animals because they want to make lots of money, and the first year was really a process of me letting go of those ideas and seeing those guys as people first and understanding their choices as best I could. It was really a collaboration to figure out what the story was, and it was a very open process where there was a lot of communication around what we were thinking and how we were seeing things unfolding and I felt like my job was really to listen instead of to talk or to even decide and I hope that the film shows that because we didn’t come out of this with a clear answer on how to solve [this ongoing issue]. We really wanted to show people what we saw and let them decide for themselves.

What has it been like to engage with audiences?

It’s been really incredible. Showing it to Kenyan audiences has been the most special and hearing them connect to the piece and give feedback has been really, really powerful, but we’ve been all over the world with it and it’s been amazing how different locations affect what people are interested in talking about. In New York, it is very process-based. People want to know how we made it and how we got access as opposed to Colorado [where] we’ve done a bunch of screenings and it’s like, how do we fix this issue? Everyone’s wanting to donate money to a website. And then in Europe, it’s like the character arcs and the plot, they’re very story-driven there. It’s a tough film for some people, but it gives them something to wrestle with and we’re really hoping it challenges preconceived notions and shows that this issue is a lot more complex than it often times is portrayed.

“When Lambs Become Lions” opens on December 6th in New York at the Village East Cinemas and Chicago at the Facets Cinematheque. A full schedule of cities and dates is here.