There are times when you are watching a film, especially a documentary, when you find yourself wondering at what point the camera should be put down in favor of actually doing something about the events unfolding.
I don't know if Tough Bond actually arrives at this point, but I do know that throughout the film I found myself wondering as much about the filmmakers as I did about the subjects of the film, four young people who live within the "village" of Kenya or at least that's the way most Americans tend to view life in Africa.
Oh sure, we know there's poverty. We know there's hunger. We know that there are places, many places, of civil unrest. There are even many who are fully aware that HIV runs rampant in many African nations.
We know. But, do we really KNOW?
I'm guessing that the world presented by Tough Bond co-directors Annaliese Vandenberg and Austin Peck is a world that we don't actually know and, quite honestly, I'm not sure we actually want to know.
We need to know it. We desperately need to know it, but even among the usual hard to sell African-themed films this film is a particularly jarring and unsetting film because of the almost observational normalcy in which it presents the world in which these young people live, a world where "village" has been replaced by urban disconnect and governmental neglect. It's a world where "huffing," or glue sniffing for those not in the know, is both a way of life and a coping skill against the sheer brutality of everyday life.
Having premiered at the 2013 Chicago International Film Festival and having played at such known fests as Hot Docs, New Orleans Film Festival, Byron Bay International Film Festival and others, Tough Bond is a film that was destined to receive the mixed feedback that has followed it. There are those who refer to the film as yet another example of the growing trend towards "misery porn," yet there are many others, myself included, who see the film as a difficult to watch yet necessary addition to the world of humanitarian docs that present a world that has largely escaped the eye of many of us.
Vandenberg and Peck do an effective job of initially presenting us with the Africa we know before giving us the Kenya that they experienced over the course of the three years that they followed these subjects and their lives. While it seems unnerving, I admire the filmmakers' obviously intentional choice to not full-on politicize the events that are unfolding here, but instead to focus on the fullness of the individuals and their lives. There are interviews that are unsettling, yet what is truly most unsettling here is that Vandenberg and Peck avoid the all too common romanticizing of these stories and the painting of a hopefulness that all too often simply doesn't exist.
There is a community here as these young people unite as "Survivors," survivors of life and government and hunger and rejection and so much more. It's the kind of community that is all too often presented stylishly in American films and when we get an honest portrayal of it we flinch and look away.
Sometimes, we simply can't look away.
Tough Bond continues on the fest circuit and is now available through VOD channels. For those with an appreciation for honest, challenging and deeply moving documentaries it is a film to be seen and it is a film you simply will not forget.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic