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In one of her first meetings with the villagers of Kogutu, Caroline Teti, an employee of the fast-growing nonprofit GiveDirectly, tells them, “I know you’ve had a lot of visitors.” She’s referring to the various NGOs that have swooped into Kogutu and other corners of the African continent with big promises that often turn up empty. In her stylish dress and heels, Teti presents a new idea to these Kenyans, a program that would give every eligible adult villager $22 a month for 12 years. “White people,” she tells the villagers, “call it redistribution of wealth.”
Free Money is an illuminating documentary from helmers Lauren DeFilippo (Red Heaven) and Sam Soko (Softie), who weigh the virtuous goal of lifting people out of poverty against the potential adverse effects of white-savior syndrome. Focusing on a few Kogutu residents over the GiveDirectly program’s first four years in their village, the filmmakers pose pressing questions for anyone who cares about economic justice and a global community.
Directors: Lauren DeFilippo, Sam Soko
1 hour 18 minutes
Michael Faye, a founder of GiveDirectly who appears in the doc, doesn’t like the word “experiment,” but Soko and DeFilippo see no better description. Neither does journalist Larry Madowo (with BBC at the time of filming, and now with CNN). Having grown up in a village not far from Kogutu, Madowo maintains a clear-eyed skepticism toward solutions proposed by outsiders.
Teti, of GiveDirectly, listens to villagers’ concerns about the nonprofit’s out-of-the-blue offer. These range from reasonable doubts to rumor-fueled fears (Is the Illuminati involved? Are human sacrifices required?). “Nothing is ever free,” one villager notes sensibly enough, given the history of the world.
Anyone in the village who’s 18 or older and a permanent resident will receive the money via smartphone transfers (the phones themselves are a novelty for many). A local priest assures parishioners that it’s not a sin to receive funds from abroad — indeed, that it’s God-sent. If you’re following the money, the truth is somewhat more prosaic: It comes from Google, which responded enthusiastically to GiveDirectly’s pitch.
In a particularly engaging sequence, three Kogutu women discuss the choice that lies before them. It’s no small detail to them that women who qualify for the program will receive money directly — a factor that impresses the village’s men as well, in different ways. The women will grow horns, one man notes in a conversation about UBI. Another offers a less extreme prediction: “Some will leave us.”
DeFilippo and Soko zero in on two young villagers whose experience with UBI is charged with optimism but not immune to crushing disappointment. Eighteen-year-old John Omondi Ogunde, about to start university in Nairobi when he enrolls in the GiveDirectly program, has career plans and seemingly endless enthusiasm. Jael Rael Achieng Songa, 16, envisions a life for herself beyond Kogutu and is especially eager for an education, something she wouldn’t be able to afford without financial help.
Because of a maddening snafu — the initial misunderstanding documented on camera and the eventual bureaucratic double-talk liable to make you shout at the screen — Jael’s name isn’t in the nonprofit’s system when she turns 18. For John, the reality of a big city’s cost of living proves more than a couple of hundred dollars a year can solve. Free Money is attuned as well to the inevitable feelings of jealousy and injustice among residents of the neighboring village — “Why not us?” they wonder as they watch “rich” Kogutu residents receive preferential treatment at the local market.
There are heartening outcomes too. At a call center where employees check in on program participants, they hear happy reports of lower blood pressure, home improvements and newfound courage. One of the most inspired results of the UBI program involves the initiative and benevolence of Jael’s grandmother Syprose and other older Kogutu villagers: They form a “merry-go-round savings group,” pooling their money and each month choosing another member to receive the pot.
The camera captures weaver birds building their spherical hanging nests as they’ve always done; for people living in a world defined by capital, there is no such natural order of things. But somewhere between instinct and economic theory, GiveDirectly and other UBI proposals aim to break the charity mold and offer solutions that solve poverty. Free Money is alert to the pitfalls but also asks how such help isn’t worth a try.
And the doc shows how swiftly perspectives can shift, how the same talking heads decrying the idea of such a “giveaway” as UBI are insisting, a couple of years later, that the American government rush checks to people who have lost work during the pandemic. Such ironies are usually lost on those who espouse a double standard, but even so, it’s worth pointing them out, and perhaps helping to dissolve the lines between us and them.
Production companies: Insignia Films, LBx Africa, Retro Report Films, New Slate Ventures
Directors: Lauren DeFilippo, Sam Soko
Producers: Amanda Pollak, Jordan Fudge, Jeremy Allen, Lauren DeFilippo, Sam Soko
Executive producers: Stephen Ives, Bramwel Iro, Christopher Buck, Tess Cohen
Cinematography: Vanessa Carr, Nyasha Kadandara, Wambui 'Bo' Muigai
Editors: Ryan Mullins, Raúl Santos, Mila Aung-Thwin
Composer: Eduardo Aram
U.S. Sales: CAA
International sales: Dogwoof
In English, Swahili and Luo
1 hour 18 minutes
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