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Life & Debt in Jamaica
W. michael byrd and linda a. Clayton
Law & Order
Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism
Native Challenges to Mining and â€¦
Iraqi Sanctions: Myth and Fact
Nuggets From A Nuthouse
Race and Class
You Can Beat the Privatizers
Consequences Of Empire
An Interview With Miriam Ching â€¦
The War In Afghanistan: 40 â€¦
Stephen R. Shalom
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Life & Debt in Jamaica
The New York Times says Stephanie Black's powerful new documentary Life & Debt “offers the clearest analysis of globalization and its negative effects…ever seen on a movie or television screen.” Set in Jamaica, Life & Debt is a case study of how contemporary free trade policies and global financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization affect the economies of developing nations. This well-structured film is a neatly segmented “globalization for beginners,” revealing how McDonald's affected Jamaican beef growers and restaurateurs; the impact of imported powdered milk on island dairy farmers; and the devastation wrought on Jamaican plantations by a U.S. vs. European Union trade dispute.
Life & Debt shatters stereotypes of Jamaica as a vacation paradise and Jamaicans as ganja-toking, happy-go-lucky islanders. Producer/director Black interviews IMF Deputy Director Stanley Fischer, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Rastafarians, tourists, farmers, factory workers, and the last on-camera talk before his death with Jamaica's ex-Prime Minister Michael Manley. The 35mm film, shot in black and white and color, has a rousing Calypso and Reggae soundtrack with music by Bob and Ziggy Marley, Peter Tosh, Harry Belafonte.
Life & Debt won a Critics Jury Prize at the Los Angeles Film Festival and Ziggy Marley performed at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival New York premiere. Life & Debt went on to become perhaps the only film without a distributor to be screened in theaters (in Manhattan), and was aired August 21 on PBS's POV series. The documentary has been picked up by New Yorker Films, which is distributing Life & Debt nationally.
New Yorker Stephanie Black attended SUNY Binghamton and NYU, where she was influenced by Godard and Bertolucci. Black worked on Sesame Street, Reggae music videos, and was a researcher and second unit director at Pine Ridge Reservation for the Robert Redford-narrated/produced documentary Incident At Oglala, about the 1975 FBI-Native American shoot-out and political prisoner Leonard Peltier. Black's first documentary, 1990's H-2 Worker, won Sundance's Best Documentary and Cinematography prizes. Life & Debt is Black's second full-length directorial effort.
I recently caught up with Stephanie Black at her loft studio in Manhattan.
ED RAMPELL: How did you get involved with Jamaica?
STEPHANIE BLACK: As an American, I'm not living in a country under an IMF program. That distinction between being from the country with the most power within the IMF, but yet not having a working knowledge of what the IMF is doing outside our boundaries, was a catalyst for Life & Debt. This story deals with the impact of the U.S. and the other G-7 countries on Jamaica and other developing countries. It made perfect sense to dairy farmers and others that an American was asking them for information and they were very happy to have the opportunity to share with American audiences. Jamaicans very clearly understand these economic policies; there's no reason why Americans couldn't.
I first visited Jamaica because of H-2 Worker, about the 10,000 Caribbean men brought to harvest sugarcane every year in Florida for American sugar corporations [who] live in substandard, deplorable conditions. I wanted to include where the men came from, so we went down to Jamaica to film their home life and do an interview with Manley. I fell in love with the island completely. It's one of the most fascinating, beautiful places I've ever been.
How did you get the idea for Life & Debt?
After shooting H-2 Worker, I wanted to go back and spend some time Jamaica. It has incredible, striking contrasts. You have this phenomenal beauty, and phenomenal in-your-face poverty. The people are survivors. They adapt to the economic situation. This question kept coming into my head: “How could a country this rich in resources, culture, people, and agriculture be this poor?” Especially such a small country. I was reading the local newspaper and there were all these articles in the early 1990s about IMF-imposed restrictions or another benchmark policy unmet. I'd never seen this kind of front-page news in the U.S. I was similar to many Americans, who thought the IMF was like the Red Cross or some sort of benevolent charity, which came in when there was a problem to save the day. We've all accepted colonialism is wrong. Yet contemporary globalization and the policies the World Bank, IMF, and International Development Bank impose are very similar to colonial economic strategies.
Tell us about the film's narration?
Jamaica Kincaid's text was based on 1987's A Small Place, a very angry, passionate, militant book by someone brought up in Antigua, similarly colonized by the British, and reflecting back on what it was like to be brought up in a colonial society.
What about the music in your film?
Reggae music is an incredibly important part of Jamaican culture. It's also a dialogue that happens every day with different artists, and I'm a big fan. There's a track called Life & Debt written by Mutabaruka, who also wrote the track for H-2 Worker—he gave both my films their names.
Other tracks—Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, Harry Belafonte—reflect very passionate voices of Jamaica.
You obviously didn't get an IMF loan for your film. How was it funded?
Initial funding came from the New York State Council on the Arts, Paul Robeson Fund, NEA, and ITVS, an independent funding arm of PBS.
Following the worst violence in Jamaica in 25 years, you premiered Life & Debt in Jamaica this summer. What was the reaction?
The screenings in Jamaica were a great success, it played in the movie theater for three weeks, selling out every night, except two nights when there were hurricane warnings. It generated a lot of dialogue and was extremely positive, especially for the younger generation.
What's your personal philosophy?
I'm very often hurt on a day-to-day basis by socio-economic inequity and I question what our historical inheritance is in this. I believe in social and moral equality, based on truth and justice. I have faith in people, that with knowledge, we can move towards a more equitable society. That's why I make these kinds of films, as film is a fantastic tool to get information out in an emotional context. Z
For more information contact: New Yorker films at www. Newyorkerfilms .com.