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.
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.
How did you get involved with Jamaica?
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?
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?
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
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.
tracks—Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, Harry
Belafonte—reflect very passionate voices of Jamaica.
didn’t get an IMF loan for your film. How was it funded?
came from the New York State Council on the Arts, Paul Robeson Fund, NEA, and
ITVS, an independent funding arm of PBS.
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
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.
information contact: New Yorker films at www. Newyorkerfilms .com.