Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Review: Tough Bond (2013)



Tough Bond is a strong contact adhesive distributed across Africa by Kenya Adhesive Products limited. Tough Bond (2013) is also the title of Austin Peck & Anneliese Vandenberg’s hard hitting and desperately urgent documentary film about four street kids who huff the stuff, as they bide their time on the city streets as statistics of Kenya’s forgotten generation. Essentially a tale told in four gripping acts and filmed over a three year period, the directorial duo get straight down to business with an intrusive yet delicate approach to their subjects.

A child is born against the bare bones of an agricultural backdrop in Yomo Village, Lake Turkana, Kenya. This is life away from the city, a disintegrating landscape and an industry on its last legs. As a mother gives birth and the family go about their daily business, it becomes clear that the safety barrier of the third-wall has been removed, forcing the viewer to confront the subject matter head-on and from a raw, voyeuristic approach. This opening scene which so delicately captures life in its purest, most innocent form is then juxtaposed with the introduction of the film’s first main player, Sinbad. The narrative, provided by the sixteen year old himself, informs the viewer of his own tragic upbringing and his near fatal birth. A stark contrast to the introduction that also raises a fear of the life that lies ahead of the newborn.

As we follow Sinbad through his day-to-day life, acting as sole provider for his terminally ill mother, sister and ailing grandmother, country officials offer contrasting glimmers of hope. A social worker full of compassion expresses her frustration at the system that's swallowing her country. The owner of a furniture store, speaks passionately on Kenya’s glue sniffing epidemic and blames the shoe-makers for selling it to the children, something, he says, that he would never do himself. Almost immediately, the filmmakers pull the rug of promise from beneath the feet of the viewer as they candidly capture the same man hitting a child, before sending him off with the bottle of glue he swore he'd never sell. The scene, as brief as it may be, is matched with a jarring soundtrack that’s wholly visceral in effect.

Statistics spewed from the mouth of the disillusioned manager of Kenya adhesive products are terrifying. 50 tonnes of glue is distributed per month, 15% of which is believed to be consumed by children. However, according to this happy chap there’s no harm in it as it reduces their aggressiveness and helps them sleep. This one statement encapsulates the class divide and sheer level of neglect that the children are victim to. They are treated as nothing more than a pack of stray dogs and it’s utterly devastating. Perhaps the most disturbing scene of all involves a close up of a young boy, unconscious, under the influence and on the edge of death. His distorted senses are represented via the emotive soundtrack generating a feeling of utter helplessness in the viewer. This is brutal, direct cinema at its most urgent and all you can do is watch.

Young married couple, Akai and Peter add an alternate perspective, symbolising a generational leap and demonstrating the desperation and sexual depravity of life on the streets. Cameras follow them for a year, through love, heartache and a tense wait for the results of a deadly illness. Footage of the gritty city landscape is interspersed throughout. Scenes of children wading knee deep through waste are significant of the colossal mess created by the death of community and the rise of African socialism, and its “every man for himself” ethos. Anto is representative of this influence. Existing in a man-made base in a Nairobi gangland, he is a man fuelled by anger and hatred and unfortunately signifies the only aspiration for the film’s previous subjects. In a society that has never given them anything, the only option left is to take, by whatever means necessary. It is a dangerous conclusion and  it is captured fearlessly by the filmmakers.

The density of the subject matter is alleviated somewhat by the occasionally uplifting score provided by The Very Best & Seye and there are a few tender moments of light relief. However, it’s the filmmakers nonjudgemental treatment of their subjects that makes Tough Bond so wholly engrossing. The optimism and determination of Sinbad, the film's youngest star, is promising and when filmmakers capture the joy on the faces of street-kids as they huddle around a portable television to watch a grainy VHS, it suggests that escapism in a less harmful form than substance abuse, can cause momentary happiness but clearly, not enough is being done.

Tough Bond provides a balanced and detailed account of a shameful period in Kenya's history. The Vice President of Kenya, Kalonzo Musyoka and the country’s Prime Minister, Raila Odinga offer their opinions and promise of investment in neglected areas but nothing directly tackles a solution to the glue huffing epidemic. The film concludes with intricately framed scenes from the dissipating landscape of Yomo Village, a community in decline. The framing is symbolic of the vicious circle of life in a country where problems are so often documented in the world's media. However, Tough Bond is original in its unflinching approach and tells a different story. It is a commendably brave and revealing documentary that covers every aspect of life in Kenya from birth to the very brink of death. A thoughtfully executed and valuable account of a complex country and a forgotten generation of kids doing all they can to survive in an abysmal and tragically sticky situation.


TOUGH BOND: (OFFICIAL TRAILER) from Village Beat on Vimeo.

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