Last year, a remarkably improbable event occurred in Washington, D.C., when the senior United States senator from North Carolina had a meeting with a rock star named Bono. It was widely reported that this senator, often thought to be an "evil" man, was reduced to tears by the urgent appeal of U2's lead singer, and later accepted an invitation to take in the band's show at RFK Stadium. The issue that so moved the senator was a relatively new one for most Americans: the crushing effects of the lending policies of the International Monetary Fund on people who live in the Third World.
If it takes a rock star to bring attention to this issue, then so be it. (Bono has also been hanging with President Bush and the Pope, who in turn must love being photographed with a rock star.) Those disinclined to wait for Bono's next media appearance, however, might head to the Carolina Theatre in Durham to catch Life and Debt, a shocking and infuriating portrait of the effects of IMF policies on the little island of Jamaica over the last three decades. Luis Buñuel once called his Surrealist landmark, Un Chien Andalou, "a desperate, passionate call to murder." Life and Debt has that same urgency, and viewers may walk away wanting to attend the next summit meeting of international financiers with their pockets stuffed with rocks and wearing bandanas over their faces.
Producer and director Stephanie Black doesn't stint on irony. The film opens with television footage of rioting on the streets of Kingston, then moves into a montage that intersperses images of Jamaican poverty with shots of the hermetically sealed tropical paradise that First World tourists see from the moment they fly into Montego Bay. The images of yahoo tourists drinking and dancing in the safety of their hotel resorts are unsettling, as a mirror of ourselves that the Third World is holding up to us.
The narration, which is based on an essay by Jamaica native and New York writer Jamaica Kincaid, is bitter and accusatory. We're told of one small irony of the tourist experience in Jamaica: The hotel food is imported from Miami, because it's cheaper than the local food. Life and Debt shows the effects of our consumption and our appetites on the powerless, even in an image as simple as water going down the drain of a hotel bathroom. The narrator asks rhetorically, "Where does that sewage go?" After a long pause, we're told, "Well, the Caribbean is very big ... but the Atlantic Ocean is even bigger."
The film accomplishes a nearly impossible feat by dramatizing, in human terms, the effects of the seemingly arcane world of international lending. With a mixture of documentary footage of the island and talking heads from Jamaican academia, international lending institutions and ordinary workers, Life and Debt explains how, in the years after Jamaica won independence in 1963, it sought foreign capital to develop its infrastructure. The loans, however, came with terms that required Jamaica to increase its exports, cut domestic spending and eliminate its protective trade barriers.
The consequences could not have been worse. Forced to export its produce, Jamaicans had difficulty finding good prices because of the agricultural subsidies that other countries (especially the United States) use to prop up their domestic production. This is why you won't find much Jamaican produce in your local Wellspring, and why the schools, hospitals and other necessities of Jamaican development are in such abysmal shape.
Meanwhile, as Jamaicans are forced to export their produce at starvation prices, they're helpless against the flood of foreign imports. Jamaicans now have no choice but to drink imported powdered milk, while their fresh domestic milk is dumped simply because there is no place to sell it. One of the film's chief talking heads, an IMF representative (who comes off in this film as a condescending bastard from central casting), hews to the line of free markets and globalization. Dismissing the attempts of Jamaica and other struggling nations to protect their local industries, he says, "It's a question of what's fair for the citizens of [Jamaica]. They're working, they're manufacturing, they're producing--why shouldn't they have the right to buy things that other people have in the rest of the world?" As Life and Debt demonstrates, what's "fair" seems to be defined by the interests of the powers who lend the money.
Life and Debt is full of righteous fury, but it's also a lovely, well-produced film. Jamaica, after all, is home to the Blue Mountains and Montego Bay, and has a rich indigenous musical tradition that finds its way into the soundtrack. In one montage, banana pickers toil away as we hear that chestnut we all learned in grade school: "Hey mistah tallymon, come and tally me banahnas." When I learned that song as a kid, I wondered just who that tallyman might be. I assumed he was white, but now I know he's also the IMF.