In Kenya today, a significant segment of the population of children living on the street is addicted to sniffing glue. This sounds like a social issue that would be taken up as a cause by a character in a sitcom. It seems so over-the-top miserable as to be parodic. It sounds like something tailor-made for VICE to pounce upon (and pounce upon it they did). But it’s a real phenomenon, and filmmakers Anneliese Vandenberg, Austin Beck and their crew spent three years in Kenya capturing it. The result is an absolutely unshakable film.
In fact, Tough Bond is one of the rare documentaries where the experience of watching it feels almost perverse, far stronger than the mere urge to look away that comes from films about difficult subject matter. There are so many shots of very young boys wandering zombielike through the streets with glue bottles affixed to their lips. It’s deeply, viciously upsetting. Despite its verite trappings, the film sometimes seems to teeter on the edge of misery porn just by its relentless parade of sadness. I’m never sure where I draw the line between honest exploration and exploitation of a subject, but I’m willing to give any movie the benefit of the doubt. It helps to contrast this doc with the VICE article on the same subject, which, in usual VICE fashion, is incredibly crass in its “Hey, check out this crazy shit” tone.
“Tough Bond” seems to be the glue brand of choice for the youth. When your impoverishment is at the point where the usual illegal drugs are out of reach, anything seems like a good alternative to escape reality. Glue is cheap. The fumes are a potent and highly addictive narcotic. As one interviewed boy says in a horrifyingly casual manner, getting high off the glue helps you forget the hunger in your stomach. It helps you to go away, to not care for a while.
More than anything else, Tough Bond is strongly reminiscent of the 2004 masterpiece Darwin’s Nightmare. Besides some stylistic similarities, it’s also about an awful social issue in an African nation that’s ultimately a side-effect of globalization run amok. As Kenyan cities expand and villages get absorbed into slums, the traditional family and community structures have collapsed. Once, one woman explains, it would have been seen as the duty of a village to help young mothers raise their children. Now, desperate women have to abandon their children to the streets, where they have no one except each other. The movie follows four “glue kids” — Sinbad, Akai, Peter and Anto — over the course of the three years spent filming in their various home cities.
At moments, the film’s production works against itself. Computer-generated shots of traveling from one location to another via map, as if it’s an Indiana Jones film, clashes against the naturalistic feel that it seems to be going for. Details like this are a small concern in the end, though. Tough Bond is one of those films that feels like something you can only endure once. It doesn’t feel like a call to action as much as it does a plaintive query as to just what the hell can possibly be done about this kind of hell, which seems utterly pervasive and insurmountable.
Tough Bond is now available on VOD platforms.