Lauren DeFilippo is a documentary filmmaker based in New York City. She most recently produced “Ailey” (Sundance 2021), an acclaimed feature documentary that was released in theaters nationwide by Neon, broadcast on PBS’s “American Masters,” and is now streaming on Hulu. DeFilippo’s directorial debut, “Red Heaven” (SXSW 2020), follows a NASA psychological experiment to prepare for the first manned trip to Mars. Her short documentaries, most notably “Clean Hands,” have been recognized at festivals internationally and have appeared on “The New York Times Op-Docs” series.
“Free Money” is screening at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which is running from September 8-18. The film is co-directed by Sam Soko.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
LD: “Free Money” is the story of the world’s largest universal basic income experiment in rural Kenya. More importantly, it’s the story of how the trajectories of two teenagers living in one close-knit community are affected when outsiders come in with a new idea for how to improve their lives.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
LD: Victor Kossakovsky has this list of “10 Rules of Filmmaking” that I’ve always loved, and there’s one in particular that rings true for me: “Don’t film something you just hate. Don’t film something you just love. Film when you aren’t sure if you hate or love it. Doubts are crucial for making art.” It would be hard to better sum up my interest in this story.
Overall, I get amped up by new visions or bold ideas for the future. Be it giving people money just for being alive or putting humans on Mars– tell me more, I’m hooked. I love feeling the shock-factor of hearing about an idea like that, and thinking, “Can you even imagine?!” But what gets me even more are the gray, murky questions that these radical visions always seem to be wrapped up in — the questions that bring doubts and where interesting storytelling comes from. For me, it’s always questions like, who really stands to benefit here? What are the unintended consequences that could play out? And most importantly, what does this idea actually look like in practice? That’s what drew me most to the story of “Free Money.”
I had so many questions of both excitement and skepticism. When I heard that a massive economic experiment was happening that actually played out over such a long time, I couldn’t look away. It felt like an opportunity to explore both this revolutionary idea of universal basic income (UBI) — which, at that time, was very much in the shadows as a solution to global poverty — but also a chance to make a documentary that did more than just talk about an abstract idea with your predictable experts. Instead, it was an opportunity to follow people intimately as it impacted their lives, for better and for worse, and create a film experience about all that unfolds.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?
LD: More than anything, I want people to walk away with opinions and to express them! For a lot of Western viewers, this film is going to be the first time that they experience the African perspective of non-profits or NGOs, i.e. those groups who we here in the U.S. usually perceive as the do-gooders, venturing to the global south or other developing countries to help people in poverty. Spoiler alert: it’s not good!
Some viewers may question the organization experimenting with UBI in the film – the ethics and the power dynamic at play. Others may see the benefits of what they’re doing, and the negative consequences as simply being collateral damage for a greater good.
My co-director Sam Soko and I didn’t set out to make a film that presented a black-and-white solution to global poverty. Instead, we wanted to make a film that expressed the intimate experiences of real people being impacted by an unprecedented experiment. We wanted to prompt audiences to consider who they connected with in that story and what’s important to them.
I also think that “Free Money” is going to be a glimpse into the world of rural Kenyan teenage life that not many have experienced in real life or even in a film before. I think that people are going to find themselves connecting easily with these kids — in terms of their hopes and dreams for themselves at such tender, young ages — and I hope that they’ll be affected by that surprising identification.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
LD: This film was a true collaboration between me and Sam, and while co-directing was probably the biggest challenge, it was honestly the most rewarding part of the whole undertaking. We come from very different backgrounds: I’m from the U.S. and Sam is from Kenya, and so you can imagine the difference in perspective and culture. Somehow, someway, I roped him into making this film with me, and I thank my lucky stars every day that he actually said yes.
Through our collaboration I learned so much about seeing and understanding a cultural experience so different from my own. No matter what, I learned that I was always going to have cultural blind spots, and as much anxiety as that gave me, all I could do was try to stay open and aware of them.
Ultimately, we were trying to tell a story for a Western audience and an African audience who had polar opposite viewpoints on the topic. While most Westerners usually see do-gooders, fighting the good fight, most Africans see corrupt, bloated organizations that come into places they don’t understand and usually do more than harm than good.
Our challenge was to bridge that gap and make a film that could say to both sides, “I see where you’re coming from, and I’ve got you.” Obviously, we didn’t want to alienate any audience members, but rather to bring them into a place where they felt seen and grounded and ready to experience the journey that our characters go on.
Also, the Nairobi-New York time zone difference is no joke!
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
LD: “Free Money” was funded by a combination of philanthropic contributions and equity investment. Chris Buck at Retro Report Films was our earliest supporter, and I’ll be forever grateful to him for taking a chance on this story and sticking with us throughout all of the ups and downs of making a documentary that’s unfolding in the present.
Our other partners at New Slate Ventures were invaluable supporters who came onto the project at a critical moment and have really helped us see it through – and they gave some great notes, even when we weren’t ready to hear them.
W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
LD: I became a documentary filmmaker because I realized that it uses so many skills that I really value and forever want to be honing: you have to be creative and figure out how to tell a good story; you have to see ahead and predict the future both in terms of the logistics of a shoot but also in terms of a topic (will this be something audiences care about in five years from now when I finish the film?); you have to be a people-person who can connect with your subjects but also your collaborators and crew; you have to be comfortable following your instinct and intuition in the moment even when it’s terrifying; and you have to be emotionally intelligent– there’s so much under the surface of most human interaction that you have to be able to tune into to tell a meaningful, authentic story.
Ultimately, I think I became a filmmaker to better understand all these pieces of myself and to meaningfully connect with others in the process.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
LD: Best advice (which I repeat all the time): Follow the love. There are so many steps to making a film – from choosing what you’ll make it about to choosing who you’ll make it with. In the course of it, you have to keep yourself open to who has the most love for your project and for you as an artist. Watch out, it can be tricky! These are usually the people with little or no money. But if they believe in you and what you’re doing, and you feel that love, you’re on the right path.
Worst advice: Lower your budget. Films take time and talented people to make them. I’ve made them cheap, and I’ve made them expensive, so I get both sides. I always think of that Joe Biden quote: “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” So true. You should make a budget that reflects what you care about in your filmmaking process and stick to it.
W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?
LD: I was someone who really came up the ranks and put my time in playing many different roles on film projects. While I think that was an invaluable part of my personal process and has given me unique experience as a director, I also think it was wrapped up in a lack of confidence to really put myself out there and own my true level of experience for a long time. For years, I struggled to call myself a filmmaker, let alone a director. I always felt that I had to be thankful for that type of opportunity, or that I owed something in return, and looking back, I think that I often ignored the inequities I was experiencing as a result. I don’t think that I advocated enough for myself because I thought the industry was doing me a favor by allowing me to be there.
So my advice is to keep putting yourself out there and taking up space. Every aspect of independent filmmaking is so hard – it can feel like you’re just putting out one fire after the next– so recognize that you do it because it’s a part of you and, more importantly, that you don’t need approval from others to keep on doing it. No one is doing you any favors by “allowing” you to be in the room; you’re there for a reason.
Finally, I’d say it’s also so important to find your people, which is just another version of “follow the love” for me. Films are not made in a bubble, and you need people who you respect and trust to collaborate with you, so put the time into finding them and don’t settle for anyone who is a less than a good fit – it will just take up energy and time you don’t have to spare. When you meet them, you’ll know.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
LD: My always and forever is “Stories We Tell” by Sarah Polley. I’m tearing up just thinking about it. It’s such a creative approach to documentary and brings to light so many questions about truth and subjective experience while also hitting the nail on the head on everything from connection to love to family. And there are so many funny moments.
W&H: What, if any, responsibilities do you think storytellers have to confront the tumult in the world, from the pandemic to the loss of abortion rights and systemic violence?
LD: Such a loaded question! I admire storytellers who take on the inequities of our particular moment in time, but I don’t believe that it’s a responsibility an artist must take on. I know that there are storytellers out there who feel differently and who are quite literally fighting for their lives by telling the stories they do. Those artists have my undying respect.
In the end though, I think that we do have a responsibility to tell stories that are relevant today and that at least try to move our collective story forward.
W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?
LD: So much has shifted in the last couple of years in the industry, and I think it’s essential that we continue to question and hold accountable the decision-makers in power. And it can’t just start from the top with, “Who are the successful BIPOC filmmakers out there who we can now turn to?” Because, frankly, there just aren’t enough. I think that as an industry we have to continue to bring in young, emerging filmmakers and support them at an early stage even when it gets bumpy.
It’s such a privileged group of people who can continue to go forward as early filmmakers when faced with all the hurdles independent filmmaking throws at you. We all know there are times when you just can’t get proper funding or resources – I don’t know how many times we need to repeat, that is not sustainable! Personally, I feel a real responsibility as a director and producer to keep pushing for progress and equity because the system is still rigged in so many ways.