"Free Money": Direct from New York to Kenya's Kogutu village


Free money. PHOTO | POOL

I'm amazed that this isn't the most popular show in the country on Netflix, given its enticing clickbaity title Free Money. Don't get me wrong; the production is top-notch and lives up to expectations.

However, considering people's typical views on money, that title alone should have secured its place as the top title on Netflix. It's genuinely an exceptional title.

The Basics

Free Money is a 2022 documentary that was made available on Netflix on September 1, 2023. It explores an experiment supported by the charity GiveDirectly, conducted in the Kenyan village of Kogutu.

In this experiment, residents over the age of 18 had the opportunity to choose to receive a monthly universal basic income of $22 for a 12-year trial period.

The documentary closely follows the initial enrollment process and examines the impact of this income on various families in the village and the broader community.

It offers a balanced perspective by featuring viewpoints from both sceptics and supporters, providing a comprehensive view of the ongoing experiment, which is slated to conclude in 2031.

GiveDirectly is a non-profit organisation dedicated to aiding families in extreme poverty by providing unconditional cash transfers through mobile phone platforms.

This documentary is a collaborative project between LBx Africa, a Kenyan-based film production company led by director Sam Soko, and Lauren DeFilippo of Insignia Films in New York.

It is the first part of a three-part series and had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

What I like about the film

What immediately drew me in during the initial act was the seamless editing and pacing during the opening sequence. The pacing throughout this part of the documentary is truly captivating.

The directors and editors have done a commendable job in introducing the concept and premise, immersing you swiftly into the world of Kogutu village with the aid of impressive cinematography.

Speaking of cinematography, it's worth noting that wide drone shots were effectively employed to capture the dynamic landscape of rural western Kenya, Nairobi, and New York.

The decision to maintain the native languages of Dholuo and Swahili throughout the show adds to its authenticity and enhances the documentary's natural and grounded atmosphere.

One particularly impressive aspect is how Nairobi is portrayed, with the production team skillfully capturing the city's essence through sound and location, making it instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with the city.

The film excels in presenting various perspectives, ranging from sceptics to supporters, providing viewers with a well-rounded understanding of the motivations behind the decisions made by individuals like the founder of GiveDirectly, Larry Madowo, and the members of the village.

The concept of universal basic income takes on greater significance when the documentary explores the moment when Covid-19 forces the US to adopt a similar concept, highlighting the contrast and politics between the Western world and Africa when it comes to universal basic income and the experiment.

Another standout aspect is the inclusion of individuals from different age groups. This provides valuable insights into their unique challenges and struggles, adding depth and engagement to the experience.

Each individual's journey unfolds with its own mini-arcs, making it easy for the audience to become emotionally invested.

What I struggle with

The second act feels less dynamic compared to the first, with an excessive reliance on B-roll footage that occasionally resembles those of nature documentaries.

From my standpoint, a commendable documentary typically establishes a case, presents supporting evidence, and allows the viewer to make their own judgment.

In the initial and middle segments of "Free Money," this approach is executed effectively.

However, as the documentary progresses into the third act and ultimately concludes with Jael's narrative, it actively advances the case, provides evidence, and delivers a final verdict.

The concept of universal basic income is intriguing on a comprehensive level, and its potential to reshape the non-governmental organization (NGO) landscape is captivating.

In this context, it presents an excellent opportunity for creating an engaging documentary. However, after viewing the documentary, my thoughts were fixated on GiveDirectly as an organization and its CEO.

In recent years, Silicon Valley has given rise to various innovative ideas, with some proving successful and others falling short.

From figures like Sam Bankman-Fried to Elizabeth Holmes, we've witnessed instances where deceptive schemes were presented as promising disruptive concepts.

I genuinely hope that GiveDirectly avoids heading in a similar direction. My hope is that several years from now we won't find ourselves watching a scandalous Netflix documentary exposing how GiveDirectly either exploited donors or recipients during their experiment.

Final word

Although the conclusion seemed somewhat like a public relations effort, the documentary offers a captivating glimpse into the lives of the individuals residing in western Kenya.

It delves into various aspects such as education, the sense of community, and religious beliefs.

Through this documentary, I gained more insight into the people of the village of Kogutu than I did about GiveDirectly as an organisation.

That's the reason I highly recommend Free Money to both enthusiasts of documentaries and those who aren't typically interested in documentary films.

Twitter: @stanslausmanthi

PAYE Tax Calculator

Note: The results are not exact but very close to the actual.