Saturday, February 23, 2013

Tough Bond

On 15 Februrary 2013, I had one of the most fulfilling documentary experiences in my life. Having gotten out of the bed with ample time on my clock, I somehow managed to leave the small room I was renting in Berlin-Mitte late enough, so that I had to make a 3-minute run to Nordbahnhof, and fly through the "shiny surfaces and special effects, laced with nostalgia and product placement" of Potsdamer Platz to make it on time to the 11:30 screening of Tough Bond at the CinemaxX. My second film, so far, of this year's Berlinale edition, I was optimistic, having picked 5 great films out of the 6 I saw previous year. My expectations were far more than fulfilled.

Tough Bond was featured as part of the Generation 14plus section of the festival, a section that is aimed to "integrate children and youth into the festival’s film-aesthetic discourse". The documentary follows a number of kids in different towns in Kenya to merge the audience into the environment in which these kids live. Their lives, to a great extent, speak of otherwise invisible characters who struggle to become survivors (or "servivors" as one wall graffito read). All of the kids hail from an area surrounding Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake, whose life and provision of livelihood to its environment has come under threat with the construction of a major dam on the Omo river in the northerly-neighbouring country of Ethiopia. With very little to live on, indigenous peoples of the area have migrated to towns across Kenya. There is one common character that bonds these kids together, a tough one that is, that they all sniff glue on regular bases.

Our first encounter is Sinbad, a generally upbeat kid in Isiolo, Kenya. Sinbad is depicted as one of the stronger kids in the town, collecting plastics and metal from the streets, and the garbage and sell/return to metal scrap dealers for money, with which he either buys medicine for his ill grandmother, or more glue for himself. It is Sinbad's grandmother who has raised him, and to whom Sinbad looks upon as his true mother. And it is for whom Sinbad returns to his shack home every now and then, to take care of her, though he prefers to sleep rough on the streets, with the full confidence that his mates will protect him. Quite predictably, the mother figure is an underlying symbol throughout the film. The documentary starts with the filming of a very difficult labour process, and subtle references to the motherhood of nature, manipulated by mankind's political desires float throughout the film.

If Sinbad is an abandoned child of the nature, Akai, a young girl in the second village we travel to, Meru, a base for travellers to the Meru National Park, is the abandoned child of the society at large. She is the classical example of an exploited young girl who finds a way to get away from her abusive "husband", only to return to him a year later, and now infected with HIV that he contracted from others. As Akai introduces us to the medical care system in this impoverished town, our directos take us to Nairobi to reveal where the name of the film comes from: Tough Bond is a chemical product that is used to bond parts and accessories to metals, commonly used in minibuses and other vehicles to strengthen the seats. While the Kenyan Government is alleged to ask the producers of the glue company to combat the issue, the business-owner claims that 15% of the produce go to children for sniffing. As we follow the intricate route of the glue from the factory to the hands of the furniture manufacturers, and the elderly of the towns and villages who dilute them and sell them to children, we get a sense of how the supply chain works on this most precious goods on the street market.

As kids entertain themselves in the two small towns, watching trashy east-Asian marshal arts films on small television sets, a group of young and tough kinds in the Kiamaiko Slum in Nairobi call themselves the legion, the brotherhood. Complaining about being stigmatised by the city-dwellers, they claim to stand out for one another in a hostile environment. After all, these are places where individuals are not allowed to exist -- if you are outcast from the legion, you are in trouble; or, as the community worker lady in Isiolo had said "when a child is born, he/she belongs to the community; if the child splits from the community, the child cannot exist". Introduced, once again, at the very end of the film, she bluntly points her finger to the overall discourse that has come to plague the society:

"... these people, we, ... are not accustomed to urban living. We have to wake up... and we have to work very hard".

As I prepared to gather my thoughts on what the conditions of a rapidly urbanising world meant to otherwise invisible people to us, the directors of the film came up onto the stage for a Q&A. While I mention this, I have to add that I am always pleasantly surprised at the ratio of unannounced Q&As at the end of films at Berlinale (over the last two years, about two thirds of all films I have seen had them).

When the first-time documentary feature directors came up on stage, the Berlinale producer asked them the same question that came to everyone's mind: "two white Americans, shooting a documentary in sub-Saharan Africa -- why is this any different?"

The directors then went on to explain their motif: the idea of giving the people to voice their own narrative.
The means were simple: none of the documentary was scripted. The directors lived with the communities in the shacks and on the streets for over a year, and traveled back again after another year. They had an early interview with the Vice President in Nairobi, who claims in the film "that street children in Nairobi is no longer", and they used a picture they took with him to gain access where necessary in the villages across the country.
They had a code: no footprint -- meaning no unjustifiable help to the children (in terms of food). Though they sometimes broke the code, they had also initially agreed to put Sinbad into a boarding school, and Akai into a skills programme. They have recently found out that both children had been taken back by their families or communities.

And this is the soft underbelly of any such production, many examples of which we have come across over the years. It is inevitable to have left a footprint, to have had impact on the lives of the communities, and offer very little after leaving. Yet, the directors wanted to leave a legacy behind.

The production company, Village Beat, has set up a radio that serves to "1: Immediate information during crisis. 2: An equal access platform for peaceful & substantial issue discussion. 3: A means to celebrate and protect culture through music and storytelling." Crowdsourcing, entertainment, and an internal communications device, all at once. The idea is, possibly naive, but appreciable: "to see if it will help people to try and stop the children in their communities from using glue".

Majority of that responsibility lies with the authorities who can provide the mental, social, and physical infrastructure to communities in need. The resources may be scarce but they are disproportionately distributed. That said, external factors loom large. What this film was about though, as the directors claim:

"an answer to what happens when the delicate balance between humans and nature is disturbed". I learned from it, and I was inspired to see a full-house in a chilly, beautiful Berlin morning, and three rows of school children who participated in the Q&A of a documentary selected for a section of a festival dedicated to them.