If you come to Jamaica as a tourist, this is what you'll see…
Jamaica circa 2001 is a nation in turmoil. After its independence from British colonial control and support in 1962, this tiny island struggled until it was almost wiped out fiscally by the gas and oil price wars of the early '70s. In an attempt to find financial support and backing, the then Prime Minister, Michael Manley, approached the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to secure sovereignty saving loans. The millions needed to aid the nation came at a very stiff price. The IMF imposed unusual conditions and internal policy "suggestions" onto Jamaica, hoping to open the remote trade market to the world and visa versa. However, over the decades, these restrictions and mandates have virtually destroyed the country, propelling it into overwhelming poverty and rampant crime. This further caused the social structure to implode, and without a viable work force, tax base, or import industry, the government again went after funds and/or restructuring of previous credit. And this caused the vicious cycle to start all over again. On the island, the poultry, dairy, and banana industries have all but been destroyed. And still the globalizing forces of the G7, the WTO, and the EEU, continue to pressure the country for more import/export concessions. As the old saying goes, there is no sure thing in this world except death and taxes. But for the already zombified citizens of Jamaica, there is only Life + Debt.
Life + Debt is a distressing film about conditions in modern Jamaica. When you mention this sleepy Caribbean island to a Western (or mainly American) citizen, several images come quickly to mind: Rastafarians, dreadlocks, reggae, Bob Marley, "ganja," beautiful beaches, never-ending sun, and a serene, friendly tropical paradise. What many who travel to, or merely consider, this country do not see is the unimaginable poverty, political unrest, civil wars, riots, and the vast sense of human desperation and hopelessness. In director Stephanie Black's scorching indictment of the international banking system and its effect on this endangered Eden, we get to see both sides of the nation's schizophrenic personality: the horrifying working and living conditions mixed with the fantasy-like façade of resorts and vacationer luxury accommodations. But make no mistake about it: this is one film that is not out to spit in the face of those people who visit the island for fun and sun. They are seen merely as pawns, unwitting participants in the further deconstruction of the country. No, this movie is strong in its political and foreign policy stances. It longs to defame and destroy globalization, International Monetary Fund style organizations, and to a lesser extent, the United States for being the direct cause of so much of Jamaica's grief. The film, indeed, makes a very strong case for how world organizations, like the G7 and WTO, can dictate internal policy within a nation strapped for economic support. However, the case here is made with a constantly swinging oversized novelty mallet, not a subtle set of unavoidably persuasive arguments.
This is not to say that Black has made an ineffective film. On the contrary, Life + Debt is a very powerful film. There are moments that will break your heart with their grim, bleak realism. One of the most ravaged industries in Jamaica is the dairy farm, which used to proudly provide the population with the majority of its milk and milk by-products. But when the IMF demanded market openness to secure further economic aid, the nation was flooded with powdered milk and now uses it almost exclusively. The sight of poor, cheerless farmers spilling millions of gallons of the white fluid onto the ground, there being no viable market for it, is sickening. As is the case of the banana farmers, who for years enjoyed exclusive trade rights with Europe, and more specifically, former rulers Great Britain, to sell their wares. Again, the world steps in and with the United States and World Trade Organization support, that exception is being eroded, forcing the small plantations of the island to compete with huge American fruit giants like Dole, Chiquita, and Del Monte. It's a price war battle they cannot win. Generations of tradition and dedication are systematically being wiped out in the name of competition and fair trade. But it's important to note that, with the exception of former Prime Minister Michael Manley, who seems to be a one man whipping boy, filled with "mea culpas" for leading the country into such a bind, there is not another Jamaican on screen (or implied off-screen) accepting blame for their role in all of this. Both the IMF and the WTO are easy targets, as their self-serving mandates and extortion-like "suggestions" for internal/foreign policy changes within the nation are borderline immoral. But to consider the country itself spotless in this process is just plain untrue.
Two main issues, one obvious and the other unspoken, tend to obscure the strong yet one-sided message Black makes. It is unmistakable that, like most third world nations, there was and still is a desire on the part of Jamaica to maintain its agriculture-based economy within an industrialized world market. And this is absurd. When a technology powerhouse like Japan can still fall into an abyss like economic slump with its complex advances, what hope is there for a small nation, without similar clout, to survive only raising bananas and spices? This kind of colonial mindset is at least partly to blame for the terrible state of the country's finances. And then there is the drug issue. Drugs you say? You've watched all 86 minutes of Life + Debt and you never heard anything about drugs? Well, that's right, you didn't. The marijuana orientation of Jamaican society, from the Rasta based religious meaning to its use in the popular culture iconography of reggae, is never mentioned. Perhaps the filmmakers considered it a given (after all, when was the last time you saw a Jamaican in full dreadlocked regalia and not thought them to be taking a last dance with Maryjane?) or a too stereotypical, near racist angle to explore. Maybe they just thought drugs didn't count in this story. Whatever the rationale, the fact that Jamaica has a social problem/stigma associated with the drug and is still considered by many international agencies to be a chief trafficker to North America is completely glazed over. This makes one wonder: did any of this also affect the IMF when it came time to hand over the multi-millions the government was looking for? Life + Debt makes a very strong, staunch case against globalization, but one fears it hides pertinent facts to do so.
Still, this is a very good film, one that should be seen if just to get a taste of how international banking and politics works. New Yorker Films does a fine job with the DVD presentation, giving us a chance to get more in-depth with all facets of the situation. Visually, Life + Debt is a beautiful film to look at, the obvious beauty of Jamaica and its people radiating through even the most devastating poverty. Presented in an anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1 transfer, the image is gorgeous and free of defects. Sonically, the Dolby Digital Stereo is wonderful, since the soundtrack here is filled with excellent, atmospheric reggae that is stirring in its message and biting in its lyrical content. The bevy of bonuses begins with a commentary track from director Stephanie Black. For her, the message of the film is crystal clear and needs very little supplementing. So her narrative is mainly interesting facts and insights into the making of the movie, from the way author Jamaica Kincaid adapted her work on Antigua, A Small Place, for this film or statistics on the number of farms and businesses that collapsed since the making of the film. It is sparse at times, but does function to fill in some anecdotal gaps. The additional interview footage of ex-Prime Minister Michael Manley is also enlightening, since we get to hear more details about the issues facing him, his people, and the government as a whole, especially when it came to accepting the IMF's "ideas" for economic changes. Anthony B's music video for the song "Mr. Heartless" is as political as the anti-WTO photo gallery offered (which is huge) and the enclosed pamphlet listing dozens of anti-globalization websites and organizations. Add trailers for this and other New Yorker Films products, and you have a comprehensive DVD package, filled with information, entertainment, and context.
After digesting all this material, it's hard not to feel bad for the Jamaican people: they are a decent lot caught in-between a Big Brother world and the "why bother" temperament of tropical tourism. But Life + Debt makes it clear that without some change, the main threat to the tiny island nation may not be the WTO or the IMF, but its own desperate people. And how this bank control and coercion is better and more acceptable than colonialism is anyone's guess.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Commentary by Director Stephanie Black
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