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'Life and Debt'

Times Staff Writer

Stephanie Black's "Life and Debt," a documentary investigation into how Jamaica came to be second only to South Africa in the having the worst internal distribution of wealth of any country, goes a long way toward explaining why meetings of the World Bank draw such stormy protest.

Black shows how the Draconian lending terms of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have steadily destroyed whatever infrastructure Jamaica managed to establish in the wake of its independence from the United Kingdom in 1962. Now $7 billion in debt, Jamaica has seen its agricultural industries laid to waste by the impossibility of competing with imported fruit, vegetables, meat and poultry.

One after another, a dairy farmer, a vegetable grower, a banana planter and on down the line eloquently attest to how their incomes have evaporated. Then there's the phenomenon of the free market zone in Kingston, where free means that Jamaican seamstresses can turn out clothing for the American market for a pittance while their employers are free from local taxes. Black contrasts the hard lot of the Jamaicans with the luxurious tropical fantasy paradise experienced by tourists who arrive in posh Montego Bay and never see the grim shantytown realities of Kingston. The contrast is, of course, razor sharp and important to make, but Black seriously overdoes it when she underlines the tourist sequences with narration drawn from Jamaica Kincaid's 1987 "A Small Place," which bitterly reiterates what the tourist will never see. The use of Kincaid's text in this context has the effect of holding up to ridicule, intentionally or otherwise, one of the few economic resources the island nation has. Would Black, for all her contempt for tourists, who inevitably are easy targets for satire, really want them to stop coming?

Black could also have brought more clarity to her project. A number of the technicalities that would be immediately grasped by experts on world economy could have been made more easily comprehensible for the layman--the occasional diagram could have shown how the various unjust systems function and interconnect. Even so, the damning commentary and revelations about the perils of globalization, not just for Jamaica but developing countries the world over, do come across loud and clear.


Unrated. Times-rated: Complex adult subject matter.

'Life and Debt'

A New Yorker Films release. Producer-director Stephanie Black. Cinematographers Malik Sayeed, Kyle Kibbe, Richard Lannaman, Alex Neomniaschy. Narration drawn from Jamaica Kincaid's "A Small Place." Editor John Mullen. Featuring the music of Ziggy Marley, Buju Banton, Peter Tosh, Mutabaruka and Bob Marley. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.

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