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Life and Debt

A new film hitting theaters all over the country is earning raves from critics because it does the impossible: turns the stale subject of "free trade" into a riveting narrative.
 
 
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In the early '90s documentary filmmaker Stephanie Black found herself in a quandary. She had been visiting Jamaica for several years, and every time she stepped off the plane she was struck by three things: 1) the increasing Americanization of the place; 2) the intractable poverty; and 3) the continual stream of stories in the Jamaican press about the International Monetary Fund's influence on economic policy.

Black didn't know much about the IMF or its sister lending institution, the World Bank. "I thought they were something like the Red Cross," said Black, a New Yorker who talks and gestures with the energy of three people. But after she finished making "H2-Worker," a 1990 documentary about Caribbean sugar cane laborers in Florida, she decided to set aside some time for research.

Thus began Black's unsentimental education into the policies of the two major postwar lending institutions and their effect on developing countries like Jamaica. The result, a feature-length documentary called "Life and Debt," has been racking up festival awards and will have theatrical releases across the country through March 24 (for listings see LifeandDebt.org).

The film is earning raves from critics, for it achieves the near impossible: It turns the stale subject of structural adjustment policies and debates about export markets and free trade into a riveting narrative. Black does not shape her film around droning talking heads. Rather "Life and Debt" is told as a journey. The "eye" of the film is a typical American -- a person much like Black, who comes to Jamaica as a tourist and at first sees only swaying palm trees and natives splashing in warm turquoise water.

Black says many have criticized her for ridiculing the tourists she films. They are seen gloating over the worth of the dollar, getting hammered on tropical drinks, dancing like buffoons to reggae and taking "real life" excursions through Jamaican ghettoes in a ridiculous zebra-striped jeep. These images are cross-cut with conversations with Jamaican farmers, workers and politicians about their inability to achieve economic independence after 400 years of colonialism.

"The use of the tourist goes back to the initial way I tell this story," said Black. "I'm not making fun of them. The tourists are me, too. They are really a metaphor for all Americans and people from rich countries, who may not know about life outside their hotel gates."

In "Life and Debt," Black constantly moves the viewer in and out of those gates -- from plush hotel rooms to filthy factory floors, from pool parties to street protests -- to draw attention to the metaphorical gate that exists between those in the developed and undeveloped sides of the world.

Once this torn curtain is established, Black goes to the jugular with her analysis of the IMF. She introduces former Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley, who was elected on a non-IMF platform in 1976. In a powerful interview, Manley explains how he was forced to sign Jamaica's first loan agreement with the IMF in 1977 because he lacked viable alternatives -- something he emphasizes is a global pattern in the Third World.

"Going to the IMF and signing that agreement was one of the more bitter, traumatic experiences of my life," says Manley. "[There is not one] IMF country that has a good educational system, a good agricultural system, a good public health system ... All of them are caught in the old colonial chains."

Among Manley's many points is that the IMF and World Bank were created without the cooperation or interests of developing countries. Intentionally or not, he argues, the bankers and bureaucrats who have required Jamaica to tighten its fiscal belt, resulting in slashes in social spending, or open its markets to exports, resulting in the crippling of its agricultural economy, have benefited from Jamaican instability and poverty.

These points are then illustrated in Black's film, and not subtlely. In a series of segments, Black takes the viewer inside the Jamaican economy, to examine the circumstances of the textile, banana, milk, potato and poultry industries. Most disturbing is the part on Kingston's Free Economic Zones, where workers sew clothes for American corporations like Tommy Hilfiger and Brooks Brothers for $5 a day on large swaths of "nationless" land ringed by barbed wire.

The Zones, the film underscores, were meant to provide low-income jobs and help integrate Jamaica into the global economy. But after witnessing interviews with poor workers, who describe the Zones' working conditions as a "slave boat," and with corporate representatives, who admit the main attraction for Tommy Hilfiger is freedom from taxes and cheap labor, it is hard to feel good about the progress of economic globalization.

The segments on Jamaica's ravaged agricultural economy leave the same impression. Black presents interview after interview with farmers, who speak with frightening acumen about the repercussions of loan agreements and the workings of entities like the Inter-American Development Bank. "When you open up the marketplace to those in a better position than yourself, who do you 'tink is going to win?" said one onion farmer, who cannot compete against the large and cheap quantities of U.S. onions flooding the Jamaican markets.

One segment ends with tons of fresh milk being dumped on the ground, because its producers simply cannot sell it. "This new world order means there will be no more regulation in the trading of commodities," said the milk producer. His company has gone from producing several million to 600 liters of milk a day, because the IMF directed Jamaica to abandon its subsidies to milk farmers and abandon control of milk imports. Stanley Fischer, former deputy director of the IMF, is then shown explaining that if such directives are not followed the IMF cuts off economic aid.

If you are American or have ever visited a country like Jamaica for a carefree beach holiday, it is hard not to feel culpable after watching "Life and Debt." You might say it's an educational guilt trip. This feeling is only strengthened by the voice-over narrative, adapted from Jamaica Kincaid's blistering essay on third world tourism, "In a Small Place."

"I wanted Jamaica Kincaid's text because it captured the anger and militancy I was feeling," said Black. "I always felt sick in Jamaica. Every time I went there, I had to go deeper into the countryside not to feel the Americanization and imperialization that is everywhere. What doesn't make sense to me is that, according to the IMF, countries like Jamaica are supposed to be able to compete after centuries of enslavement and economic exploitation."

I asked Black whether she thinks Americans should feel responsible for the impact of the IMF policies on Jamaica. "Well, that is the point of the film," she responded. "The question I was asking myself when I made the film was, What is my role in this? Am I responsible in any way, if my country has the greatest influence on this economy?"

Tamara Straus is senior editor of AlterNet.org.