What if a company promised to give you money, every month for twelve years, free of charge and without working? The humble people in the modest Kenyan village of Kogutu, are initially (and understandably) worried about what strings are attached when NGO workers for the charity GiveDirectly arrive offering $22 a month for the next twelve years to any resident over the age of 18. The money, a universal basic income, promises to change their lives. It’s part of a test program, happening in several other countries, to see if direct infusions of cash works better in altering income inequality than standard charitable practices.
“Free Money,” a swift and succinct dystopian documentary by Sam Soko and Lauren DeFilippo, chronicles the implementation of GiveDirectly’s controversial program by its founder Michael Faye. It begins in 2017 and winds its way through the first four years of the plan, steadily checking in with the recipients to see how they’ve benefited (or been harmed) by Faye’s experiment.
From the outset, a prickly feeling runs up your neck: Faye explains that for the purposes of his strategy, like any other scientific study, there needs to be an A and a B group, a control and experimental component. That means that only three villages in Kenya can receive these funds (and how they’ve chosen these three villages in particular is the true devil in the details).
Upon receiving news of their incoming money, the feeling in Kogutu is not one of elation. “She doesn’t want their dirty money,” explains one villager about a friend. Some believe the cash is coming from The Illuminati. Others believe it’s from Satan. But more often than not, people see the potential benefits: The women think it can give them greater independence and the men are worried their wives might now leave. The teenagers, such as 16-year old Jael and 18-year old John, want the funds to attend school. The local church slyly guides its parishioners to accept the potential wealth so the attendees can offer further tithings.
This isn’t the first time white saviors have infiltrated Africa promising milk and honey. Multiple charities have offered Band-Aids meant to stem the tide of poverty, disease, and systematic inequality caused by colonialism only to either offer too little or to never fulfill their pledge. Skeptical Kenyan journalist Larry Madowo is worried about the unforeseen repercussions of this gift from “God,” as some believe.
Weaker filmmakers would lean further into the conspiratorial side of GiveDirectly, but Soko and DeFilippo are too smart to turn this documentary into a true-crime escapade. In their even-handed approach, they focus on the good the money brings — Jael’s mother has a cement house, another redoes the roof to his own abode, some in the village begin a community giving program to support individuals in need — and they outline the disturbing consequences without distrusting their audience to the point of beating us over the head with wild theories.
To enumerate all of the drawbacks to Faye’s program would partly spoil “Free Money,” but suffice it to say, it’s as dystopian as one can get and creates more inequality than it hopes to solve. Here the specificity within the cinematography takes hold: Extreme closeups of the different forms used by GiveDirectly highlights how they value the sanctity of their experiment over truly helping people. They see the texture of Africa — its vibrant and giving communities and the limited, unfinished homes they occupy, the dirt roads that seem to stretch toward sunsets with the same reach of systematic inequality — as a playground to treat humans as guinea pigs. It’s an infuriating look offered by the filmmakers, yet is never heavy-handed.
At times, Soko and DeFilippo’s gaze can wander too far to America by tying the stimulus checks paid to Americans during the pandemic as another example of such payments happening. But they don’t include enough context to make a direct one-to-one comparison feel tangible; the program in the U.S., for instance, only lasted for a year, and with only a couple months worth of payments at that. Instead, they wield the stimulus program as a gotcha moment against hypocritical Republicans, which adds very little to what’s happening in Kenya, and is at best, low-hanging fruit. The editing in the film’s first half hour, especially the clips chosen, causes confusion in the film’s timeline. An interview between Andrew Yang and Faye, for example, is implied to have been conducted at the outset of the program rather than the latter stages.
Despite those detours, “Free Money” leaves you wanting more (in the best way). After seeing the first four years covered, you wonder what will happen in year eight or ten in GiveDirectly’s 12-year project. Will Soko and DeFilippo keep up with this village? Will they venture to the several other countries where similar experiments are being conducted by this company? “Free Money” — with its dystopian mood — is a penetrating and absorbing siren of a movie that shouldn’t be ignored.
“Free Money” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.