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There’s a point early on in Stephanie Black’s powerful 2001 documentary "Life and Debt" when the word "pure" is said instead of "poor." It’s plainly a slip of the tongue, but it quite cleverly contrasts the Third World with the Western World - as represented by the International Monetary Fund.

Through a beautifully photographed film (with great music by Bob Marley, Ziggy Marley and others), Black brings us closer to the problems suffered by many of the world’s poorer countries - using Jamaica as a case study - and how we become unwitting accomplices in economic colonialism.

Black, a native Brooklynite from Ocean Parkway, received the Sundance Film Festival’s best documentary award in 1990 for "H-2 Worker," about the government-sponsored labor program bringing Jamaican laborers to Florida to harvest sugar cane.

While the premise of "Life and Debt" sounds equally daunting - and it’s not a little like taking one’s medicine to pay attention to this film - the facts are laid out in an easily understood and non-condescending fashion. Black’s important film, about how the world has to work together to eradicate poverty (and that there is enough wealth in the world to do that), may even move audiences to action. So impressive is this work that it will screen at BAMcinematek for three days in commemoration of Black History Month.

The film unfolds depicting two "bad guys." First there are the governmental and economic institutions that seem dedicated to keeping Third World countries in their place. Specifically examined in "Life and Debt" are the above-mentioned International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Secondly, there are the tourists in Jamaica, who perhaps represent all of us in North America and western Europe who don’t really understand the impact of a global economy on Third World countries.

Black doesn’t include too many shots of ugly, vacationing, beer-guzzling Americans, but there are enough to make us feel uncomfortable with ourselves - even if we aren’t those beer-swilling tourists.

Jamaica Kincaid’s haunting essay, "A Small Place" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000), serves as an eloquent reminder of the sorry state of affairs in Jamaica. Black uses Kincaid’s text to put the audience in the position of naive, unaware tourist. While "A Small Place" is never harsh - there’s a beautiful, soothing quality to the voice of Belinda Becker, who reads Kincaid’s words. She has a slightly maternal tone implying that we are just ignorant because we have it so good. This lilting, calming voiceover constantly reminds us that we do not really want to know where the food in our luxury hotel comes from (the U.S., mainly), or where the waste in our deluxe rooms goes (into the deep blue Caribbean). "Life and Debt" makes one think, probably more deeply than ever before, of how one hand washes the other.

Among other intriguing examinations in "Life and Debt" is the whole concept of debt, which is explained to us by an economics professor about 15 minutes into the film. (So if you feel as though it’s going over your head, just hang on. It will become frighteningly clear.) It is more than interesting to note that Jamaica was kept down by the control of Great Britain before independence, and after independence is held under by debt.

In 1977, the newly independent Jamaica needed to interact economically with the rest of the world. (Isn’t that how a nation forges an economy? And grows economically?) But they didn’t have the money to invest in all the country needed, things like education and health care.

They were then compelled to agree to an IMF loan. And while these loans in theory are supposed to assist in a nation’s route to economic stability, in practice the IMF loan agreements appear to be indentured servitude on a grand scale. And the country’s indebtedness creates vicious circles like free trade zone factories, where jobs are low paying, and unionizing is forbidden. In these zones, which are in effect the property of large multinational and U.S. companies, workers are paid in Jamaican dollars, which are constantly being devalued. Taxes are deducted that are never paid.

When the Jamaican workers (virtually all women) complain, the owners bring in Asian workers, give them more overtime and pay them in U.S. dollars. (Is this to punish the Jamaican workers?). Even with all of these problems, there are so few jobs that many are happy just to have them - a lousy paycheck is better than no paycheck.

Completing the circle is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). One of the results of NAFTA is that much of this work is now going to Mexico, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. So the Jamaican factory workers are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

The other main discussion is the free market system and the problems it brings. Horst Kohler, the well-dressed, well-spoken, yet smarmy IMF director talks "lovingly" about the people of Jamaica - that if they work, they have a "right" to buy what everyone else in the world has a "right" to buy - i.e., McDonald’s, Burger King, etc.

So he uses this supposed "right" as a way to explain all of these huge conglomerates bringing their companies in, putting Jamaican companies out of business. (Black relates the tale of a small Jamaican restaurant called McDonald’s, named after its owner, which was forced to close down when the "real" McDonalds came to town.)

Throughout the film are portraits of the Jamaicans who are affected by this - onion and potato farmers who are simply trying to earn a living by feeding people; dairy workers who have had to throw away thousands of gallons of milk because they are forced to use milk solids imported from the U.S.; and banana growers who make a much sweeter banana than, say, Dole or Chiquita, but whose sole market is the United Kingdom. Apparently, food products can come into Jamaica, but hardly any of theirs can go out - or even into local markets.

The view is not encouraging. But Black’s film gets the word out that what’s needed is a bigger economic and political move - essentially, it would seem, changing voting on the IMF so that small impoverished countries can be free to try to improve their economy with World Bank loans. "Life and Debt" is that rare film that can, if enough viewers pay attention, change the world.

Marian Masone is the associate director of programming for the Film Society of Lincoln Center and chief curator of the New York Video Festival at Lincoln Center.


"Life and Debt" will screen at BAMcinematek [30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place, (718) 636-4100] Feb. 8 and Feb. 10 at 2, 4:30, 6:50 and 9:10 pm and Feb. 9 at 2, 4:30, 6:50 and 9:30 pm. Tickets are $9. A panel discussion will follow the 6:50 pm screening on Feb. 9.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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