The story of philanthropist Charles Mully is nothing short of miraculous. Born into poverty and an abusive family in Kenya, Charles was abandoned at a young age and left to fend for himself. For over a decade, he was a street kid; fighting for survival and committing petty crime to survive. One day in his journey to try to make his life better, he was taken in by a kind Indian woman whose husband was the CEO of a major farming operation. Charles got the real world experience and education he had been missing. He found a wife and had eight wonderful children. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps and created Nairobi’s most reliable taxi service, often working days on end. The taxi service became a fleet. He got involved with oil and made even more money. Things were finally great after a hard fought struggle from a life that could have potentially ended before it had a chance to start.
But with success comes a skewed view of the world, something Charles realized following a chance encounter with a street kid he refused to give money to. After the desperate young man destroyed Charles’ car, the self-made entrepreneur had an epiphany. He was going to give back everything he had earned to help his fellow man. With the help of his family and supportive wife Esther, Mully founded Mully Children’s Family, a Christian, non-profit, non-political, non-governmental, and non-judgemental organization to help a wealth of problems. The charity has dug wells, grown crops, given housing and education to some of the over 500,000 homeless youths in Kenya, and so much more. He has created high schools for children that are academically the best in the country.
Through a blend of archival footage, dramatic recreations, and lengthy interviews with Charles and his family, American actor and filmmaker Scott Haze looks at this incredible life in the documentary Mully, screening this week at Hot Docs in Toronto. We were fortunate enough to catch up to Haze and the film’s remarkable subject to talk about Charles’ amazing life and work.
I was just talking to Scott, and he was telling me how long it has been since you guys were last with each other.
Scott Haze: Yeah! I’ve been working shooting other movies, and he has been working on other things. Neither of us have had much time to connect.
Charles Mully: We haven’t seen each other since last year.
Charles, it’s amazing to see what you have done in your life and what you have come from, so was it sometimes difficult to open up about things in your past for a documentary? I’m sure you’ve told your story many times before, but was there something different about telling it to Scott?
Charles Mully: I think Scott really wanted to and really did want to expand upon things that I had very deep inside and bring them to the light so people can see it. They were the first people who came really wanting to tell this story – the whole story – in this way. They were serious about what they wanted from me. I felt they were a great and good team to work with me to bring this story out exactly how it was.
Scott, how did you come to know Charles’ story?
Scott Haze: I knew a man named John Bardis, and he saw some of the work I did on another film I was directing, and he called me and told me there was the story going on in Kenya about a man who has been changing the world and it needed to be told. He asked if I would be willing to go to Africa to tell this man’s story and meet with him. They sent me a book called “Father to the Fatherless” by Paul Boge, which was about Charles, and I read it and immediately told them I would do it. Within just a few weeks, we were in Kenya. It happened very quickly. Charles, at the time I first started, was actually in San Jose on business. I flew up to meet him with my producer Lukas Behnken, and we met for twelve hours, and Charles opened up to us about his life story. For Charles, it was a big leap because he didn’t know us. He trusted us, and that was how I agreed to do it. And this has surpassed anything I’ve ever done as an actor. This is the most important project to me that I’ve worked on in my life. It meant the most to me, and I had the most fun doing it. It was the best time of my life.
The film opens with a recounting and recreation of Charles’ life, and it’s told in Charles’ own words. I’m sure there’s another version of this film that could be made with a lot of talking heads espousing how great Charles is, but you allow this man to speak for himself, and quite often only talk to family members and those who benefitted most from Charles’ generosity. Could you speak to why that decision was made?
Scott Haze: That’s a good point. The way I look at it was if you told me your story about how your life was when you were a kid versus how someone else would tell that story, the latter wouldn’t be very emotional. There might not be as much of a personal impact if you didn’t tell me your own story. Charles did an incredible job of documenting his life before and during the rise of M.C.F. The only thing was that we didn’t have footage of Charles as a boy, so I thought it would be best to hear from the man himself what it was like so the audience could be drawn in. The reimagining of his memories of his childhood were also a case of having a few breakfasts with Charles and telling him that he really needed to play himself. I didn’t think anyone else could have been as great at it as he could. Sure enough, Charles turned out to be an amazing actor, as well.
Charles Mully: I’ve never done that before. I’ve never acted in any film. I’ve been able to give instruction to people on drama and so many things. So when he approached me and told me they were looking for someone and they didn’t know who could act on my behalf, he said that it looked like I had the gifts, confidence of self, and expression to do it. He said he was going to interview me and talk about what happened. I followed his instruction exactly.
Scott Haze: If you look at The Bible, the stories of Jesus are told by those closest to him, which were the disciples. A lot of what Jesus did was so miraculous, the further away from him that you get, the less miraculous it might seem in the telling of it. There’s something about being connected on a personal level, so the people closest to Charles are the only ones who could help tell this story. When you tell the story of whether they were digging a well or when they ran out of money, you don’t want to hear from a townsperson or casual observer on that. You want to hear from Charles, his family, from his wife, Esther. In hearing what the family was going through at the time, you get the full vision of what happened. And trust me that it wasn’t an easy decision. I did have other interviews. In the edit, though, it was so much more powerful to hear this story from those closest to him.
Do people share stories with you of how you have inspired them to give back to their own communities?
Charles Mully: My life story is a really practical one that has impacted many over the years who have heard it. Now when they see the documentary, they’re compelled by this story to look at themselves and how much they can do the same. It is a model that pushes the hearts of people to talk and wonder what they can do. I see that a lot, and people ask me with their heart what they can do. One thing that I really know is that the heart of man is the main gateway to all humanitarian services throughout mankind, and therefore, when your heart is really open to the feelings of other – be it extreme poverty, personal struggle, insufficient needs wherever they are – then you can hear it and feel it, too. Once that is open, you can begin the opening up of your wealth if you have it. But you have to have an open heart that’s ready to assist the poor first.
Scott Haze: I think this is a universal thing. It’s a human-to-human thing where if we see someone who needs help, we want to help them. The problems in the slums of Kenya can be seen on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. There are many extremely wealthy men who could feasibly follow in the model of what Charles has created. I don’t if that’s a choice or a calling, though. I think Charles was called upon, and then he made a choice. Not everyone is called upon or strong enough for that work. There’s a ton to walk away with in this movie. When you see someone on the street who is sick, or you see someone close to you going through a hard time, hopefully this film inspires people to think about what’s going on in their lives and how you can help. Charles even says in the film, “Work hard, have faith, and through God anything is possible,” and no matter what your faith is, we can do anything in this world, and change is real. I want people to see and share this movie with people so everyone can see what’s going on there, not really so much to praise Charles, but to look at ways where we can work together to move forward.
Charles Mully: I hope people are able to live more for others; to transform the lives of the poor and anyone in need whenever it is necessary to the community, their societies, and to individuals, especially to young people and children. I think now it’s time for me, my group, and my family are time to move forward and open up the minds and hearts of people. What I have done is not unique. It is possible. It can be done once they open their heart and join in their regard for others. They take others needs as their own.
Where would you like to see M.C.F. go in the future, Charles?
Charles Mully: I’m always excited about the future of the organization. I’d love to expand our works more in terms of education. Everything for these young people revolves around education first. When there is education, there is no limit to what the mind can do. I would like to have a university. I’ve been talking about it, and I’m seeing things happening, but there is no money for it. Nothing. And nobody has promised me anything or that it’s coming. But I think it’s a worthy cause for our brothers and sisters in that world. I see it coming along within the next few years. The aim is to instil understanding, knowledge, and wisdom. The university would cover a lot of the most needed commodities in our changing world. We also want to look at water conservation, climate change initiatives, restoring that which is lost, agriculture. To some young people, these can seem boring, but it’s the African countries that suffer from lack of these things.