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Life and Debt

Director: Stephanie Black

(Tuff Gong Pictures; US DVD: 24 Jun 2003)

Seeing Yourself

“One is always struck when in Jamaica, [by] the absolute beauty of the island in contrast with the poverty,” says writer-director Stephanie Black in the first moments of her commentary track for the DVD of Life and Debt. “The idea for the film,” Black continues, “actually came out of a very simple question, which is, how could a country this rich be this poor? And that ultimately led me to the International Monetary Fund.”


Just so, the film’s lovely opening images—the sea lapping the beach, the city lights at night, the palm trees—give way to street violence and poverty, conveyed through local tv news broadcasts. Black chose these broadcasts, she says, “both as a means of conveying information concisely and to give the viewer a sense of place, as if you are there.” In part, this is ironic, as, apart from the local news, most Jamaican tv is imported U.S. programming and advertising (and here you see Baskin-Robbins, “Where the world goes for ice cream,” a commercial that, Black admits, “was just too much to resist”). The DVD comes some two years after the film’s release, and not a moment too soon. Sadly, its critique of globalization remains trenchant and timely.


“You see yourself. You see yourself.” As you hear these words spoken in voiceover for Life and Debt, you see a montage of touristy images: lovely Jamaican hotel room linens, a balcony view of a perfect beach, perfectly tanned foreigners, even a wedding between a couple of tourists set against a backdrop of perfectly blue surf. Everything is so pretty, just as you’d expect when you’ve paid good money for your vacation package.


But by the time this travel-brochure-ish sequence appears, some 15 minutes into the documentary, it’s hard to feel impressed by the luxury you’re looking at, much less hear Jamaica Kincaid’s accusatory narration (which Black adapted from her 1987 nonfiction book about her own island home, Antigua, entitled A Small Place and read in the film by Belinda Becker). As you watch the ocean glisten in the sun, then tourists heaping their plates from a “delicious” buffet spread, you hear the voiceover again: “It would amaze you to know the number of African slaves this ocean has swallowed up.”


Slavery is a difficult memory, of course, not much recalled when for paying customers. And yet, as Life and Debt shows, it is part of an ongoing pattern: the pleasure of some comes at dire costs for many, many more. By the time this sequence appears in the film, you’ve seen other, more recent evidence that globalization—with help from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), U.S. corporations and “free trade” policies—has decimated Jamaica’s economy.


By now, you’ve seen the acute discrepancies between lovely vacation haven Montego Bay—blue sea, white sand, drinks with umbrellas stuck in them—and Kingston, where Jamaican sweatshop workers provide tax-free labor, at $30 U.S. a week, for companies like Tommy Hilfiger and Hanes; or between once successful dairy, chicken, and banana farmers, now ruined by U.S. powdered milk and chicken imports, and Chiquita and Dole produce. As the film recounts, the Chiquita debacle included a police rout of workers attempting to strike in 1993, during which 23 people were killed.


If you’re a tourist, however, you see no such disturbances. Death, poverty, misery—these are what the “visitors’ industry” is designed to cover over. When you’re on vacation, you’re “allowed” to be ignorant; this is the privilege of privilege. The irony in this case is that tourism is one of Jamaica’s few remaining viable—even thriving—industries (along with coffin manufacturing and guard-dog training).


As Black observes on the commentary track, while making the film, she and the crew literally saw the landscape changing before their eyes—increasing numbers of fast food restaurants and abandoned schools. As Black notes in the commentary, following the tourists on their bus ride, accompanied by Kincaid’s narration, was one way to “visually translate what was effectively a non-visual subject matter, the impact of policies and the impact of lending institutions.”


Life and Debt has other ways of making connections between causes and effects, and in so doing, refuses to let viewers off the hook—you can’t play tourist here. The narrator describes how the sewage system works (or rather, doesn’t, dumping waste into the ocean) or how the beef industry has been ravaged by cheap frozen “patties” shipped in from the States. Such information rather puts a damper on the sights you see from the tour bus window, you see on the way to the hotel, passing McDonald’s and Burger Kings, and an assortment of “natives” who, as Kincaid’s text describes them, are “squatting by the side of the road… hanging out with all the time in the world.” But as former Jamaican Prime Minster Michael Manley (elected on an anti-IMF platform in 1976, then forced, by lack of alternatives, to sign agreements anyway, in 1977) explains, they’re only idle because they’re put out of work by years of brutal international tax and tariff structures and labor laws.


Much like Black’s previous documentary, 1990’s H2 Worker (a look at the exploitation of Caribbean sugar cane workers, which occasioned her first encounter with Jamaican cultures), Life and Debt argues its case aggressively, never even pretending to be “objective.” Shot in part by brilliant U.S. cinematographer Malik Sayeed (Clockers, Belly), Life and Debt juxtaposes harsh TV footage of rioting and poverty-stricken neighborhoods with shots of street markets and art, Rastafari and reggae musicians. Butu Banton sings “Destiny” on camera; the soundtrack includes Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers singing “G7” over the opening credits—Black is careful to note the music selections in her commentary, as the music is plainly important as a political force.


Through judicious editing, Life and Debt sets up an “imaginary conversation” between the outraged Manley (who died shortly after the interview from which his comments are culled) and the imperious Stanley Fischer, speaking for the IMF. He deploys standard diplomatic double-speak: “In an IMF Program, there’ll be some assumptions about the way interest rates will go,” that is, these assumptions—and interest rates—will be imposed on the borrower, in order to best serve the lending institution, and no one is precisely responsible. His language is as passive here as the attitudes of first world countries and the IMF toward their borrowers.


To make its case, the film also includes a brief history lesson, with archival footage and political speeches, intercut with scenes showing the devastating results of the accumulating national debt (at present, Jamaica owes $4.7 billion to various lending agencies). The history lesson is necessarily elliptical and referential, but harrowing nonetheless. Queen Elizabeth announces the island’s independence in a ceremony that has nothing to do with the land and people she’s affecting; and in 1976, newly elected Prime Minister Michael Manley asserts Jamaica’s new policy, asserting, “The Jamaican government will not accept anybody, anywhere in the world, telling us what to do in our own country. Above all, we’re not for sale.”


Sadly, Manley’s speech, made some 25 years ago, now refers to a momentary effort to resist the overwhelming force of globalization, and the very real decisions made by people in power. Manley also provides the film with salient commentary on the abuses and politics of money lending and exploitation—the DVD includes a separate section with more of Black’s interview with Manley than appears in the film proper. What you see now is a sad, terrible picture, not the way you want to see yourself reflected at all.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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6 Dec 2001
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