Life and Debt (2001)

Cynthia Fuchs

Makes the connections for you, refusing to let you off the hook.

Life and Debt

MPAA rating: not rated
Studio: Tuff Gong Pictures
First date: 2001
US Release Date: 2001-12-07

"You see yourself. You see yourself." As you hear these words in Stephanie Black's 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 (adapted from her 1987 nonfiction book about her own island home, Antigua, entitled A Small Place and read in the film by Belinda Becker). For by now, you've seen a little too much 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 dire 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). And so, Life and Debt makes the connections for you, refusing to let you off the hook. The narrator describes how the sewage system works (or rather, doesn't, dumping waste into the ocean) or how the beef industry has been ruined 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 Baskin-Robbins and McDonald's and Burger Kings, and an assortment of "natives" who, as Kincaid 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, reggae musicians and Rastamen talking politics and spirituality. Through judicious editing, it 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, because all the language is passive.

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 PM 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, this 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. What you see now is a sad, terrible picture, not the way you want to see yourself reflected at all.

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