Tough Bond reveals the heartrending story of how Kenya’s tribal villages are vanishing, specifically focusing on the Turkana. Facing starvation, many of the children are forced to the cities in hopes of finding a new way to survive. But life there is no easier and most of the young refugees resort to sniffing glue to dull the stress of living so close to the bone.
Did you set out to make a documentary about the street kids and their glue huffing or did it develop organically once you spent time in Kenya?
[Co-director Austin Peck and I] bought a one-way plane ticket to Kenya in January 2009, searching to understand how humans live so differently around the world and what these differences mean for a global humanity. We had been in Kenya for about three months before we began filming Tough Bond.
Previously, we were in the north delivering relief food to a needy Turkana village and what we discovered there shocked us. The complex relationship between foreign aid and the erosion of the traditional village is pushing many people from their traditional ways of life. With resources taken by foreign contractors or re-appropriated for urban development, the tribes have the option of remaining in the villages with dwindling resources, waiting for USAID to come with weekly food rationings, or they can leave the village and flee to the urban city streets to look for a new way to survive.
In the nearest town, Isiolo, where many of the villages relocated, you couldn’t walk the streets without seeing at least a dozen children between 3 and 20 years old huffing glue and passed out along shop fronts. We were heartbroken to see these children ignored and in suffering circumstances and we began to talk with them to understand how this could be a reality.
After a month of listening and painful curiosity, we found ourselves obsessed and in love with these resilient beings full of humor and strength despite their difficult situation. Their story was silenced by the international dominant rhetoric of urban development and individual progress and the communities pushed these children deep into the shadows. The more we understood where they came from, how they survived and how they kept themselves so vibrant despite hunger and tragic child abuse, the more it became clear that they held the answers to many questions regarding our modern human experience and what keeps us so separate from one another. We knew we needed to share this with others and create an intimate film of their story.
How did you gain such intimate access to your subjects?
In one word: Respect. We had one rule while in Kenya and it was to be as local as possible. When we arrived to Isiolo, everyone in town was very perplexed why tourists would come and rent an apartment in the slum and buy vegetables from the vendors on the streets rather than going to the hotel where every other foreigner spends their time if they happen to pass through Isiolo perhaps en route to a game park. This gave us a sort of street cred and the street kids were very curious to know what we were doing.
We began with small talk, they would tell us false stories of being orphans and other horrors that they learned most tourists liked to hear. After a few weeks we started slowly gaining respect and began learning their deeper story, why they were lying to us, and the reality that most have families that came from the villages and this community entropy drove the children to live amongst themselves for better chance of survival through small jobs and begging.
After the first year, we developed a very strong relationship to the characters in the film and a family bond was made where we often slept under the same roof and shared our own personal stories with them just as they did with us. Our walls of separation had been broken and we found friendship rather than “filmmaker” and “subject.”
Did you live in Kenya for the years of the filming or live in the U.S. and visit the country?
We filmed in Kenya off-and-on for three years. A good two of that were spent living in country, with our characters in the rural Turkana villages and slums of Nairobi and other growing cities. Along with creating a film, we were eager to understand the phenomenon occurring all over the world where indigenous villages are rapidly eroding as the tide of modernization sweeps cultures into the shadows and away from the earth’s natural resources. To go deeply in this, we had to spend a lot of time within the villages and cities to create trusting friendships where truth could be openly communicated and we were trusted to go to places most weren’t allowed. While not in Kenya, we would have few month stints living in Santa Barbara or L.A. or NYC, wherever best suited our needs to continue telling this story.
It is a tragic life these kids are forced into. Was there an emotional toll on you while making the film?
A photograph would better tell that story, if you look at us in 2009 and then in 2011 — you’ll see that 2010 was a really rough year! We put ourselves in very difficult physical conditions where we often ate strange food and didn’t shower much. This dramatic change forces you to get to know yourself in a deeper, different way than we had ever known. A vulnerability grows and through that we were able to better understand the lives of the children living on the streets.
We grew very close to them and became completely emotionally involved in their lives. We would have fits of anxiety and heartbreak in the middle of the night after we spent difficult days in their reality. To witness children starving and filthy and loaded on drugs so they can escape their harsh realities, that is something that can drive you to insanity. We learned so much through this anger and frustration, realizing our immediate approach to save these kids wasn’t exactly the point. A respect and an understanding and us giving them safe, loving space to rest and be listened to and helped.
That is what made a big impact in their lives. And that is what made a big impact on us. The sharing. The eye contact. We’ve adopted our various vices to let this energy out — from incessant hip stretching to running to a lot of crying and despite the horror and the pain, the love and beauty we experienced through this is beyond anything else.
What is your hope for the film Tough Bond?
Our primary goal is to bring Tough Bond back to Kenya and do a free, public screening tour throughout critical cities, towns and villages. These screenings will bridge communities together — rich, poor, tribal, urban, street kids, authorities — around the issues in the film and will spark important discussion and development of local action groups that can work to help these children and their eroding villages.
The simple acknowledgement that these children are CHILDREN! and they need help and that everyone — be it an individual, a community, or the government — has the capacity to do something through love to change this horrific situation will dramatically improve the lives of these children.
Within the U.S. and internationally, we hope to spread the film far and wide, connecting people to their own Tough Bond stories. Who in our own communities do we neglect? How do they affect our lives? How can we come together to better understand each other and hold compassion for ourselves and those around us?
We have created a nonprofit organization, Village Beat, that is working on the ground in Kenya to bring the film home, partner with working children’s homes, and we are launching a community radio station in Isiolo this summer. We are hosting a fundraiser for the Kenyan Screening Tour on February 9, 5:30 p.m. at Sama Sama Kitchen, 1208 State St. See villagebeat.org.
Check the latest schedule here.