Film Review – “LIFE AND DEBT”

The International Monetary Fund and World Bank are notorious for exploiting the fragile economies, natural resources, and even people, of developing nations. In the documentary film “Life and Debt” Stephanie Black tells the story of her native Jamaica in a powerful critique of the organizations clutching the international purse strings. Interviewing everyone from IMF executives, to a former Jamaican Prime Minister, a university economist, village farmers, factory workers, fire-side Rastafarians, the documentary provides a range of perspectives.

One of the greatest strengths of the film is the effective use of juxtaposition. The outset contrasts the ease of entering Jamaica as a tourist versus the difficulty should a Jamaican try to visit the US. Later IMF contract text reveals restrictions on local subsidies and import tariffs as streams of imported powdered milk pour into processors versus tanks of fresh local milk draining into ditches as Jamaican-owned dairies are forced to close. The cycle of debt makes it increasingly difficult for the small island nation to achieve economic sovereignty, or even food sovereignty, all the while making it easier and cheaper for foreigners to enjoy the country and benefit from its resources.

Sitting in Wisconsin, dreaming of tropical breezes, I am particularly struck by the contrast in the hardships of local people versus the paradise enjoyed by tourists. In one striking scene the camera pans over a tin shack slum of Kingston. A group of tourists are being driven in a zebra striped Landover through the slums so that they might experience, from the safety of their safari car of course, the “real Jamaica”. (Never mind that there are no zebra-strewn plains in Jamaica. But, hey, there are lots of black people. Black people = Africa = safaris = zebras. Zebra-striped safari vehicles for viewing Jamaicans in their native habitats seems appropriate in the tourist context. Right? What?!)

The narrator speaks to you:
“You see natives, you marvel at the things they can do with their hair, the things they fashion out of cheap twine or ordinary cloth….hanging out with all the time in the world….

Every native of every place is a potential tourist. And every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native would like to find a way out. Every native would like a rest. Every native would like a tour. But some natives, most natives in the world, cannot go anywhere. They’re too poor to escape the realities of their lives. And they’re too poor to live properly in the place where they live. Which is the very place that you, the tourist, want to go. So when the natives see you they envy you. They envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom. They envy your ability to turn their banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”

The scene changes. A thin Jamaican man in a starched uniform wipes down a cabana chair as sun-pinkened, barrel-chested Midwesterners compete in pool-side beer chugging competition. (I can only assume that if a Wisconsinite was in the vicinity, he won one for the badger state.)

Many of us are ecologists. We enjoy the idea of traveling to pristine places, experiencing the world yet leaving a minor footprint. Ecotourism. But is it enough to be an “eco”tourist? Is it sufficiently sensitive to cultural and natural resources to simply stay in a hut of green materials as we travel the world to gawk at the beautiful places and lovely natives with their quaint old-fashioned ways of living in a rapidly globalizing economy that’s leaving them behind? I suspect not. This film makes a strong point that their nothing quaint or picturesque about poverty; it is nothing to be preserved for the affordability of our holidays or the authenticity of our exotic experience. With some subtly, the filmmaker pressures the viewer to see developing nations as more than destinations of intrigue, and to see development as more than an invitation to foreign visitors.

In the end, I highly recommend “Life and Debt”! It is beautifully filmed and richly narrated. It makes the viewer aware of political and economic realities facing many corners of the globe. It makes you consider your small role in the global economy and global community as a citizen of relative privilege and mobility.

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