Analyzing The Free Money Documentary

Free Money is a compelling but morally ambiguous documentary directed by Lauren DeFilippo and Sam Soko. Compelling because its premise raises the question- What would happen when a group of people get free money? Morally ambiguous, because the narrative portrayed, and the way it is portrayed,just like the experiment blurs many ethical boundaries. Even as I write this, I still cannot shake off how the Free Money documentary left me unsatisfied and confused. This documentary, produced by Insignia Films, LBx Africa, Retro Report Films, and New Slate Ventures, first premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2022, and it has now found its way onto Netflix, reaching a wider global audience. The film’s international sales are managed by Dogwoof, with CAA handling U.S. sales, showcasing its potential to spark conversations far and wide.

Free Money takes us to Kogutu village in Kisumu County, Kenya, where the GiveDirectly program introduces a groundbreaking Universal Basic Income (UBI) experiment. As I immerse myself in the narrative, I find myself captivated by the lives of Kogutu’s residents who become beneficiaries of this innovative initiative. The documentary’s cinematography is undeniably breathtaking, yet some critics have noted that the storytelling and portrayal of the subjects may leave room for improvement. Moreover, Free Money dedicates a significant portion of its runtime to contrasting the reactions of UBI recipients with those of neighboring villages excluded from the program.

The movie confronts a series of critical questions and concerns surrounding the Universal Basic Income (UBI) experiment conducted by the GiveDirectly program in rural Kenya. One recurring theme that emerges is the perception of white-saviorism that shrouds GiveDirectly’s work. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian, him aptly captures this sentiment, in his review: “There is a hint of white-saviourism in GiveDirectly’s work; a sense that Africans, longtime western charity consumers, are expected to be passively grateful.”

As we journey through the documentary, we witness how the UBI program, while promising on the surface, may face challenges in terms of long-term sustainability. It heavily relies on external funding, and there are concerns about its ability to address the root causes of poverty and inequality, potentially providing only a temporary solution. Furthermore, the film highlights the divisive impact of the program, with residents of neighboring villages who do not receive the same benefits expressing feelings of jealousy and injustice. In fact, this made the film feel underwhelming, as a large portion of the run time, more or less compared the people who got enrolled for the UBI programme versus those who did not , and their reactions.

Criticisms On The Experiment & Discourse

One of the most revealing criticisms comes from a prominent Kenyan Public Intellectual, Mwalimu Wandia Njoya, who dissects the documentary in a thought-provoking Twitter thread. Njoya challenges the documentary’s portrayal of the program’s “no strings attached” nature, pointing out that there are indeed strings attached. She notes that the money is selectively given to one community while excluding the surrounding ones, leading to a sense of division. Moreover, community members are tasked with monitoring their neighbors and reporting any attempts to access the funding, revealing a level of surveillance that contradicts the notion of unconditional support.

Njoya’s critique delves deeper, highlighting instances where individuals are denied money based on protocol, even if it means that the lives of those in need are secondary to the program’s rules. This raises ethical concerns about the prioritization of bureaucracy over the welfare of the beneficiaries. I agree with her on this. The filmmakers also have their share of the unethical pie. The portrayal of the people who missed out on the UBI enrollment is done in a soulless way- one that wants to capture the tears and moments of distraught to create a reel with emotional extremes. Maybe for the sake of awards?

The Riara University don is however cautious to not pass a blanket condemnation on the programme. She says that it is difficult to critiquing such interventions among the poor because while they are actually helpful, as the film shows, philanthropic initiatives like UBI can serve to stifle accountability among the political class. She writes: “What philanthropy has discovered is that it’s very difficult for people like me to critique interventions among the poor. They do such UBI programs to avoid being accountable.” She counterintuitively suggests, despite her stance on the project, that the government of Kenya should not stop the NGO from continuing with the disbursements. The programme began in 2017 and ends in 2031.

Kenyan-born journalist Larry Madowo emerges as a powerful and empathetic voice in the “Free Money” documentary, uniquely positioned to understand the intricate challenges faced by the villagers of Kogutu. Growing up in a village not far from Kogutu, Madowo’s personal connection to the region allows him to ask the critical questions that cut to the heart of the issues presented in the film. His fluency in the native Luo language further enables him to establish a genuine rapport with the villagers, giving him insight into their experiences that others might lack.

Throughout the documentary, Madowo engages in a compelling interview with Michael Faye, the founder of GiveDirectly, raising important questions about the program’s potential shortcomings. Faye’s responses provide some insight into the organization’s perspective. Faye argues that the Universal Basic Income program doesn’t discourage work but rather offers individuals the freedom to explore their passions and interests. He acknowledges the program’s reliance on external funding but asserts its potential for long-term sustainability if it can prove its effectiveness. Faye also concedes the potential for jealousy and injustice among neighboring villages but maintains that the program is scalable and could extend its benefits to more people if the idea is funded.

However, it’s worth noting that Faye’s stance on the experiment’s ethics is contentious. When directly confronted by Madowo about the program’s ethics, Faye rejects the term “experiment.” This response raises questions about transparency and the willingness to engage in a meaningful dialogue about the potential ethical implications of such initiatives.

Room For Improvement?

The critique of the experiment raises genuine concerns, but it is all bundled and presented in a way that fits a  narrative of white saviorism. One major thing that is largely going under-discussed in the analysis of this film is the poverty porn apparent. Even in Kenya, the discourse by pan-African thinkers has largely steered clear of this matter. We the watchers, are also ethically compromised as we feast our eyes on this ‘unfair experiment’.

The criticisms of the mostly left-leaning writers and thinkers, seem a little disingenuous to me, because the documentary happens to promote their white saviorism narrative. The ethics of shooting the film largely remained unquestioned. And I’ll be honest, going in I wanted the film to prove that UBI doesn’t work. But I’m glad it did not. Instead, it has reminded me that poverty eradication is not a simple one-step,” my theory is better than yours” solution.

Someone cannot be against white saviorism and still say that the disbursements should continue. Yes, they will say their stance is nuanced, and it plausibly is, but it shows a mind that does not want to hold itself to any standard and does not want to fail. Just to point out gaps. The GiveDirect guys are not perfect, but doing something for one village is better than doing nothing for no villages, right? They are at least willing to try a deeply problematic idea (I’m not letting them off the hook) and fail and then learn from their failure to improve.

Heartwarming Scenes

One of the main twists in the film is when a young woman, who thought her dreams of completing high school were all but over when she was declared ineligible for the program, finally gets her wish. However, this is possible because her mother is a recipient, and after a period of being able to save enough, she affords to send her to school, resulting in a heartwarming scene.

Free Money has more heartwarming moments that reveal the transformative potential of the Universal Basic Income experiment. In one scene, a woman who receives the UBI uses her newfound financial stability to purchase a cow. Over time, this cow gives birth to a calf, significantly improving her prospects. The joy on her face reflects the positive trajectory of her life, highlighting the real impact of the program on individuals and families.

Another touching scene features a man who benefits from the UBI program. With his increased income, he invests in improving his living conditions. He expands his modest living room to create a dining area and upgrades his worn-out sofa seats, symbolizing the newfound comfort and dignity that the program has brought to his life. Additionally, the documentary captures a sense of community empowerment when a group of villagers who receive the Universal Basic Income come together to pool their resources. They form what is commonly known as a “merry-go-round sacco” or “Chamas.” This collective effort reflects not only the financial benefits of the program but also the social bonds and sense of cooperation it fosters within the community.

These scenes remind us that amidst the complexities and debates surrounding the UBI experiment, there are tangible moments of positive change and human connection. However,they should not act as duct tape, papering over the cracks that are the ethical questions concerning this documentary and the experiment that is being carried out on the people of Kogutu village.