“Who would look after him if I wasn’t here?” and other questions this mom asks herself every day.
Theo Anthony’s short film “Chop My Money” depicts a day in the life of three street kids in the Eastern Congo. Largely unsupervised and living in a region ravaged by war, David, Guillan and Patient — or “Bill Gates Congo Man,” as he likes to be called — are self-proclaimed gangsters, although their primary money-making routine consists of hustling the town’s NGO workers for spare change. But the tough-talking trio conforms to no preconceptions of what children growing up in a war zone should be like. Instead, they insist on writing their own story.
Theo Anthony: I’m based in Baltimore. I didn’t go to film school, but I studied film theory. I got out of school and lived in Baltimore for a while, in New York for a while. I didn’t like the work that I was making; I didn’t like the scene I was making it in. My girlfriend at the time had just accepted an NGO position in Rwanda. She was a journalist. So I joined her and freelanced for some wire agencies and NGOs.
It kicks your ass. I was lucky to find some journalists from Al Jazeera, The New York Times; I was a kid with a backwards cap and I latched on to them and refused to leave them alone. I had never been to Africa. I’d never been to a conflict zone. I’d never experienced that type of poverty before. I wasn’t expecting anyone to roll out a red carpet for me, but there’s no preparation for that type of transition.
I’d been there 30 hours and a mortar shell went off about a half a mile from where we were. We go on the scene where this person’s life was destroyed. I’m just running around with my camera like, “What now? What do you do?” I messed up a lot. I was obnoxious. I stepped on other peoples’ toes. It wasn’t a smooth transition. That’s what kicked my ass. The work that you’re making, you really have a responsibility to represent the truth and the dignity of the people that you’re representing. It’s not always the right time or right place for a camera to be there. It very rarely is.
“Chop My Money” was the result of all these feelings…. Selfishly, I couldn’t make these images that I wanted to on assignment. There wasn’t the space or the time to do it. I had seen those kids around town and I knew right away that I wanted to do something with them.
Patient, the main character, is like this panther cub. He just has this presence. He’s been living on the streets since he was five; he was fourteen when we made this, but he doesn’t look it because he’s malnourished and his growth is stunted. He is so street-smart; he can walk into a room full of adults and get everyone doubled-over with laughter. Those are survival skills. Those are developed out of incredibly tragic circumstances. He’s a little celebrity in that downtown strip. He’s the gang leader of all these little kids and he alternately beats them up and takes them under his wing. Kids that are twice his size follow him around like a little duckling.
He approached me. He memorizes all the aid workers’ schedules, knows where they eat and waits outside, because he knows they’ll have change after their meal. So he was trying to hustle me, he’s still trying to hustle me; he’s always trying to hustle. Guillan and David were always with him.
David is definitely shier. He’s got that cute little baby face, but he’s been through some of the more tragic circumstances: a father that abandoned him, an alcoholic mother from whom he’s constantly running away. Out of all of them, I think he’s traumatized and he has that withdrawn element. You talk to him and he’s the most…sort of gone. But he’s such a sweet kid when you get him to play.
For the first couple weeks when I’d see them, I’d give them maybe a cinquante (50 cents) and then I’d try to make it clear that we were going to be talking outside of this exchange of money. We just started hanging out and walking around and they’d show me where they hang out and where they go, where they sleep. I was lucky enough to have a Congolese producer, Allen, sort of help me and guide me. He was a street kid himself and now he’s the basketball coach at this university that does a lot of great work in the community. So he was kind of my fixer, producer, friend. He was able to translate a lot.
I started writing a script based on images that I had in mind, and the script was…weird. It wasn’t very good…I showed them the script and when they started reading it, they were basically like, “Fuck this. We don’t talk like this, we don’t do that.” So instead of trying to force those interactions, I said, “Well what would you say? What do you want to say?”
Even if I could never put myself in Patient’s shoes, I understood on a pop-culture level that sort of idealized, flashy, strutty person he was going for. That was a connection for us. We were all listening to the same tracks on the radio, we’re all watching the same videos, so he was saying, “I want that.” That’s where I bring my craft to the table.
He is such a special kid. No one can control him. It’s like herding little jaguar cubs. They’re just at that age where they’re big enough to hurt you. We would be filming, and he’s so fast, in the middle of a take, he’d see one of his regulars that he hustles money from, and he’d sprint off, hustle them for money and then come back. There were so many times when he’d stop me and say “aww, nah, nah, nah.” It was a battle sometimes, on camera, to get him to do what you want. I mean, him eating the cricket — I never told him to do that, it was all him. He’s such a performer.
A lot of other films made in similar circumstances are entirely framed by the environment: You are looking at a Congo film. With that, bring all of your associations — war, rape, suffering — and that’s a priori to the story being told; you’re only accessing people through war/rape/suffering. But that’s not how people wake up. The normalcy that drives people in these areas isn’t really shown. You know, even when BBC or Al Jazeera does these special reports, “Live inside the Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon: portraits of normalcy!” It’s just this condescending thing that doesn’t feel organic. It’s the Resilience Package. It’s an easy, consumable thing to counter the Suffering Package and the Desolation Package and all the other negative images that we see.
I didn’t want to make it a film of the Congo, but a film that takes place in the Congo. You see those traces of a much more violent environment: the soldiers going past and the more or less unspoken fact that these kids are all alone — which, they’re not. They have people looking out for them.
There’s such a contrast between the chaos and the dialogue — that gulf that you’re talking about. I could say what I think it means, but I think what others take away from it is always more interesting. But I’m glad you asked about this because how this came about was one of the big turning points in my career.
It was the day before I was about to leave the Congo and I had to do some pick-up interviews with Patient, because I’d been looking at the footage and realized I needed him to talk some more. He had just come straight from church; he was all dressed up and irritated with me. He was hungry and wanted to eat his lunch. I was leaving for America the next day and I had to get this. I had him sit down and read these lines: “This world is not the world…” — those scripted opening lines.
So I’m having him read all these lines and he’s just cursing at me in Swahili, and my translator is cracking up. And there comes this point where [Patient] looks straight at me and just snaps into, “English dialogue, every day.” And launches into this whole English lesson.
It was his way of saying — at least, how I interpreted it — “Fuck you. If you’re going to turn me into this puppet, then I’m going to dance the best for you that I can. You’re going to make me do this stuff for your little project, then I’m going to push back.” And he did it with the most canned English that these school kids shout at their teachers without even understanding.
It was an amazing moment of him firing back in the best way that he could. The fact that it’s an English lesson; he’s being taught these things that don’t line up at all with his experiences. I got that and I was just like, “Whoa. Forget everything else. This is it.” I think that defined the tone for the whole piece and everything I’ve done afterwards. Rather than searching for things that support the image or drive the point further, I’m looking for ways that contradict or totally uproot everything I’ve constructed: never tying things up at the end. I’ll never forget that moment. It was a real turning point for me as a person.
Yeah, I talk to Allen, my producer out there, a couple times a week. He keeps an eye on them for me. He sends me pictures and Patient says hi when he can.
I’m at this artists’ residency, Yaddo, for the next six weeks. I’m editing my first feature-length film. It’s an experimental documentary about rats. It’s like a socio-economic portrait of Baltimore as told through rats, alongside these sort of stylized portraits of people who spend a lot of time with rats. So I’ve been spending a lot of time with people who spend a lot of time with rats: exterminators, scientists, homeless people, pet rat owners, breeders.
I’m also shooting another feature that I’ve been doing since I got back from the Congo. It’s about the strongest fourteen-year-old in the world. I’ve spent two years with him, so far, so that’s still in progress. I’ve been filming and filming since I got back from the Congo, but haven’t put anything out in a while, so I’m excited to have a lot of stuff at that precipice of being released.
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Theo Anthony is a filmmaker and photographer based in Baltimore, Maryland. His first feature-length documentary will debut in 2016. Connect on Twitter @ProxyTheo and follow on Instagram @theodorejacobanthony.
Holly Lynn Ellis is a producer of the narrative feature films “Turtle Hill, Brooklyn” and the Sundance selection “Prairie Love” and most recently wrapped “Adam Bloom.” Her previous work on Narratively includes a documentary short about Magic: The Gathering and a storytelling recording about being her drama teacher’s pet. Connect on Twitter @hollylynnellis.
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