The passage of time and the new global economy has transformed Jamaica into a largely unrecognizable place to those who grew up here decades ago. Though the land is still green and the sun shineth, what we are still grappling with (crime aside) is the struggle to overcome every financial problem since Independence. Debt is rising and our capacity to export to combat our problems continues to diminish. That’s the overwhelming message of Stephanie Black’s sure-footed and insightful documentary Life and Debt, hailed by the New York Times as a clear analysis of globalization and its negative effects.
Narrated by Belinda Becker, with original music by Mutabaruka, the 80-minute film offers a powerful argument for why Jamaica is in the economic mess it currently faces. At the same time, the narrative primarily speaks to foreign visitors who flock to our shores annually, largely and blithely unaware of the ugly financial hardships this side of paradise faces.
But the predominant case Life and Debt presents is the role international lending agencies like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have played in the sad situation facing developing states like Jamaica. The harsh negative effects of IMF policies have all but kept us in a never-ending cycle of debt. The late former prime minister Michael Manley, who is interviewed on camera, spares no punches in his scathing attack on IMF policies, disclosing that getting Jamaica involved with the agency during his tenure in the 1970s was one of the most “bitter, traumatic experiences of my public life.”
Now that Jamaica has re-established a borrowing relationship with the Fund, the message of Black’s film has never been more relevant. Do these international agencies truly have the interest of developing countries at heart? Were they even created with our interests driving their decision-making?
Life and Debt also explores the evolution of Jamaica’s national labour force and the state of agriculture, zoning in on the plight of our farmers. To say the least, islandwide farming has dwindled considerably, giving way to heavy importation of provisions that are ultimately sold at lower costs than homegrown produce. The solution, according to Black’s film, lies in a return to increased productivity and large-scale exportation to increase our foreign exchange coffers.
The voice-over narration (adapted from Jamaica Kincaid’s award-winning work A Small Place) is frequently evocative. The captivating cinematography features coverage of the Jamaica’s magnificent geography and people, while occasionally highlighting the interaction between tourists and locals. Yet, the meditation on our declining fiscal deficit and woeful absence of economic prosperity makes the biggest impression here. (There are cameos from Buju Banton; Jamaicans discussing their survival strategies, and a persistent reggae beat).
The film’s minor flaw is its failure to explore more of the home-bred problems that led to our current economic state – instead of putting the blame on the complexities and agendas of outside forces. Such a production shouldn’t be even remotely one-sided. These days, especially, Jamaica needs visionary leadership to move us into a time of financial flourish – if such a dream can still be realized.
For all its analysis and engaging narrative framework, Life and Debt is a significant piece of work that zones in on a country’s depressing financial state while tracing its history and pointing a way forward. But perhaps the true success of Life and Debt is the recognition that if you come to Jamaica as a tourist today, this is what you will see.