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TIFF Film Review: ‘Free Money’ Depicts a Fascinating Socioeconomic Experiment

It’s often said that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” or “nothing is free.” Such is the belief that pervades within a Kenyan village at the start of Sam Soko and Lauren DeFilippo’s Free Money. As White American entrepreneurs set out to alleviate poverty in an unprecedented experiment where money is freely distributed, this documentary explores an instantly intriguing premise for the audience and its subjects alike.

Free Money chronicles the efforts of a nonprofit called GiveDirectly, founded by a group of Harvard-educated entrepreneurs hoping to end world poverty. To accomplish this, they have devised an experiment where all residents in select villages are given a monthly universal basic income via their mobile phones for 12 years. One of those communities is the village of Kogutu, where many are initially skeptical of the proposal. But the prospect of free money proves hard to resist and soon, their lives will be changed forever.

Spanning the first 3 years of the experiment, Free Money moves at a brisk pace, depicting various stages of the experiment. Throughout, Soko and DeFilippo’s empathetic lens allows audiences to easily relate to the myriad conflicting feelings experienced before, during and after the payouts. Indeed, the various characters we meet showcase the joy, despair and disillusionment associated with the experiment’s imperfect approach. There’s even a dash of humor as skeptics spread absurd rumors about the side effects of accepting the money.

The filmmaking truly excels through its varied perspectives, each of them adding thought-provoking new angles to understanding the outcomes of the project. From the inherent feminism of equal payments to all genders, to the ways their belief systems are altered as GiveDirect becomes a proxy for God, the film is an utterly fascinating socioeconomic study. And to their credit, the filmmakers never ignore the white elephant in the room, namely the idealistic White founders of GiveDirectly whose actions are often questioned for their “White savior” tendencies. In that regard, one wary Kenyan journalist proves to be an important cautionary voice in pondering the long-term effects of this immediate solution to poverty.

Indeed, though Free Money arrives at a mostly satisfying conclusion, the complexities it demonstrates will likely leave you with unanswered questions. As it nods to the limits of this temporary solution in the face of hope and new ambitions, one thing remains clear. Free money is a good start, ridding the world of poverty requires an even more ambitious deconstruction of centuries-old social hierarchies and changes to our natural human behavior.

SCORE: ★★★


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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for, and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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