Downpresser Man

Carrying a heavy load: Stephanie Black's 'Life and Debt'
Jeremy Francis

How do you make a visually stirring documentary about a topic as eye-glazing as international lending policy? Simple: Start with Jamaica. The citizens are politicized. Their accents are beautiful. And the disconnect between popular culture and economic dogma couldn't be more dramatic.

Director Stephanie Black, who produces segments for Sesame Street on the island, must have spotted the rich potential for irony in America's decades-old relationship with Jamaica: For years we have consumed the protest music of impoverished Kingston residents while our leaders pursue the very policies that enhance their misery. Black's documentary Life and Debt thus draws on images with which no Bob Marley fan could be unfamiliar: overcrowded shantytowns, Rastafarian drum ceremonies, riots in the streets. Yet the filmmaker marshals such sights and sounds in a polemic against the International Monetary Fund, a body dominated by the United States. The effect might be something akin to growing up listening to Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons," then being told you own the company store.

Black exploits this shock of recognition for all it's worth, filling the movie's downtime with suitably surreal rock-video moments: Mutabaruka chanting "freedom not yet" on the soundtrack (rhyming "yet" with "debt") as laborers empty garbage trucks in blurry slow motion; Buju Banton singing, "Circumstances made me what I am/Was I born a violent man?" as guards train attack dogs in one of the country's few growing industries, that being security; "Day-O" playing as a banana-plantation worker sprays pesticides in the air. You get the idea.

There's undeniable pop power in such scenes. Yet I'd trade them all for one more minute with the late former Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley, whom the director turned a camera on shortly before he succumbed to cancer in 1997. Manley's face is a rich spatter of age marks, but his wit and passion are undimmed in interviews. He candidly calls his signing of an agreement with the IMF "one of the bitter, traumatic experiences of my public life," and succinctly suggests how this First World postwar lender's practices--loan-shark interest rates, enforced currency devaluation, austerity programs--might not have been tailored to Third World needs. "You ask, 'Whose interest [does it serve]?' I ask, 'Who set it up?'"

Black lets island economists and activists explain why the conditions of IMF loans, which are purportedly designed to pull countries out of debt, instead sank Jamaica more deeply into the red--from $800 million in the 1970s to a mind-boggling $7 billion in the Nineties. Defending such causes and effects is bespectacled (and now retired) IMF deputy director Stanley Fisher, who speaks in his own unusual accent (he was born in Zambia and raised in Zimbabwe). Fisher's ginger way with the camera somewhat offsets his proscribed role as apologist of power.

From the start, Life and Debt makes clear its bias. One recurring motif features a female narrator (speaking words written by Jamaica Kincaid) who addresses tourists on the island in the second person. After Manley's warmth, Kincaid's shrill sarcasm is jarring: Surveying pale sunbathers on the sand, the voice sneers, "You see yourself lying on the beach, enjoying that amazing sun--a sun that is your personal friend, ready to stamp out any cloud that dares to darken your day." Oh, give me a break, Jamaica! You begin to feel sorry for these unwitting vacationers, framed by Black as the height of honky decadence when they play drinking games or go sightseeing.

Life and Debt is more powerful when it lets the farmers do the talking. With a biblical quotation or an invocation of slavery never far from their lips, these eloquent laborers testify to the effects of IMF-enforced policies that favor imported goods. Farmer after farmer describes how the country's non-tourist industries have been undercut or destroyed. The strangulation of the local dairy business is particularly revolting: Locals, of course, produce better-tasting milk (and at a far lower cost of production) than their American powdered-milk counterparts. Yet, owing to the vagaries of the U.S.-dominated system, American powder turns out to be cheaper when it reaches Jamaican shores. Hence we are shown island farmers pouring out excess milk, and ultimately selling off cows for hamburger meat. One dairy entrepreneur calls his government's policies "visionless and weak-kneed."

When Life and Debt aired this summer on PBS, I wondered how the "free trade" true believers would react to this perfect illustration of their folly--and I wasn't disappointed. In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Andrew Cassel wrote: "Even when the Jamaicans voice a valid trade complaint--dairy farmers on the island compete with U.S. milk powder that's subsidized and protected by our own government's policies--Black dodges the logical conclusion that more free trade is the solution, rather than less." There's really no arguing with these people, who are as indifferent to their theory's real-life implementation as 1930s Stalinists once were. Allow me this editorial word to Cassel and his ilk: No developed nation in the world ever got that way without protectionism. And no corporate oligarchy stayed rich by leveling the playing field with the poor. These are two facts that Life and Debt, however loaded its presentation, demonstrates with considerable force.

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