Life + Debt - reviewed by Poonam Srivastava
"Life + Debt"Directed by Stephanie Black
Film review by Poonam Srivastava
When you visit Jamaica, for escape, for a taste of tropical paradise, for the lush tropical island that has the market cornered on sun, for holidays, what do you see? Stephanie Black in Life + Debt, a full length film, takes us on a journey to another Jamaica; the Jamaica behind the glossy images of those all too familiar advertisements flooding first world media, the media world of the rich and able. She presents us with birds' eye views of the Jamaica seen by those that buy the packages of four-days-and-five- nights holiday in paradise, as well as views of the shanty towns and squalor of the people who inhabit this island nation year-round. In close interviews with the whole host of characters that inhabit this island nation she presents an insider's view.
We meet, close up, the farmers. My favorite is a man in a plaid shirt who begins by talking about an exceptional season they had on onions. "Everyone grew onions. We harvest them and then we pack them. But when we get the onions to market there is no one to buy them. The onions from abroad cost less." "It's machetes versus machines. We grow with machetes and they with machines. How we gonna compete?" We also meet the ex-prime minister who won on a 1977 "no-to-the-IMF" platform and found himself hands tied having to accept IMF loans in 1978 or 79. "It was the most difficult moment of my public career. We had no penicillin."
The film benefits from the voices of the farmers and the politicians and the officials of the IMF and the World Bank. We are taken into board room meetings at offices around the world. We meet the founders of the IMF and World Bank. We watch, along with Jamaicans in dark rooms, television images of Bill Clinton insisting that he does not want to hurt the banana production of Jamaica.
From the first minutes of the film we get accustomed to the Jamaican accent as we listen to a Rastafarian sing a very political song as he walks through squalor streets and past empty faces of a population that is so obviously with out work or vocation. We see him and several other Rastafari through out the film, in front of night fires talking about the Bible and Ja and the terms of loans that have them suffering.
We meet workers in the dairy industry. In one of the most heart wrenching images of this film, we see a dairy farmer turn the spigot on a huge vat releasing a day's production of milk onto the ground. "With milk, we can't wait. If it's not bought then we got to let it go. Right now the Americans have provided us with reconstituted milk powder at a price that our own real milk cannot compete. It's become the standard form of milk. When the real price of that milk powder is demanded, we won't have a Jamaican dairy industry. We won't be able to afford milk at all." "My grandfather started this herd and now what can we do? We give them up to be hamburgers."
By weaving a contemporary images with archival images and the voices of real Jamaicans and non-Jamaicans, Black journeys us from the colonial Jamaica with the requisite love of the queen; to the freshly-freed-from-four-hundred years of colony status Jamaica of 1962; to the deeply in debt Jamaica of 2001. All this for the price of a movie ticket and less than two hours of your time! It's ambitious. It works.
There are moments of repetition; but they just go to underscore the reality of this film. There are moments when your anger at your own helplessness in the face of this new world economy has you biting your tongue for want of screaming. There are also moments when you smile despite it all. You smile from the humanity of all involved; from the resilience of the Jamaican farmers; the dreams and plans of laborers; the beauty of the children. The lives brought in full dimension on screen work to bring home the message: the IMF and the new world economy are choking the people of the third world with their loan terms and policies. The people beholden to them are basically enslaved. It's a difficult take on paradise. It's a difficult film to make.
This film works so well due in large part to an extraordinary narrative. Black uses the words of Jamaica Kincaid's novel A Small Place. Though that book was about Antigua, the words fit organically. They would probably also fit in any third world situation. They would likely fit in a story about the lower east side of Manhattan. These are the words that sparsely, at times gently, at times sharply, point to the absences and questions rather than to the obvious of what we see on the screen. To the tourist: "did you know that there is no hospital near by were you to get hurt?" "Where do the contents of your toilet go?" So too for scenes depicting the everyday of colonization and neo-colonization, as well and the industries that flourished, died, and could obviously be resuscitated in those time frames. So too for the lives of people, imploding in the traps of money. Kincaid's words carry the viewer towards insights that come between the images, between the sounds. With Kincaid's narrative we get an earth worm's view of the Jamaican Condition. And if we listen real close and watch even closer we may even get unquiet insights as to our very own conditions.
The element I was sorry not to see included in this film is that of the Jamaicans that profit from the status quo. Those that help uphold the oppression of their people. For surely it must exist. As any person aware of such scenario knows, there has to be the insider, the house negro, the toady, the complicit native. I wonder if perhaps in Jamaica this is not the case. If not, then that too is an omission.
Third worldism is a difficult concept to understand, especially difficult from the first world. To create a film to communicate such a concept requires a great leap of faith and much talent. Life + Debt succeeds in that mission. Where can you find such a treat? To be able to absorb with a historical and human understanding the new world order in two hours, ten dollars, and with pop corn, makes this a must-see movie. A soundtrack that includes the two Marleys, Bellafonte, and Sizzla, amongst others, also works brilliantly to bring home the flavor with the message.