Life and Debt (August 4/01)
Try to imagine the most boring lecture you've ever sat through, and you might have a vague conception of what it's like watching Life and Debt.
Ostensibly a documentary on Jamaica's financial woes, the film instead comes off a heavy-handed and one-sided diatribe on how various worldwide monetary organizations have virtually destroyed their economy. Filmmaker Stephanie Black refuses to allow the audience the opportunity to think for themselves, choosing instead to beat us over the head with her message.
Black's targets are the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and various American corporations (not surprisingly, McDonald's is one of them). She argues that their interference has significantly lowered the standard of living in Jamaica, which was apparently once a self-sufficient little island but now has enormous debts and must rely on help from other nations. This is undoubtedly a topic that Black feels very strongly about, but her biased approach prevents this from becoming anything more than a rah-rah, "let's-rally-the-troops" piece of propaganda.
Even more annoying than Black's narrow-minded perspective is the structure she's employed. She jumps from one topic to another - from the Chiquita banana strike to the influx of powdered milk - with total disregard for any kind of a flow or momentum the film might have worked towards. This patchwork arrangement of various subjects is extremely detrimental to Black's intent - which was presumably to create a documentary that would inform audiences to the dire situation in Jamaica - but instead turns the movie into something those afflicted with that short-term memory disease from Memento would enjoy.
Black occasionally adopts a condescending tone as well, through the narration written by Jamaica Kincaid. We're shown tourists coming into the country, marveling at the exchange rate and gawking at the poverty-stricken locals. All the while, Kincaid's words (which are read by Belinda Becker) point out how clueless the foreigners are - as if they would really care were they informed of the situation. Black seems to think that everyone's got a little activist in them, and that nobody would bother vacationing in Jamaica if they knew the real story. Never mind that it's an inexpensive country with breath-taking vistas; the locals are being treated unfairly, so everyone should boycott the place.
But this is obviously a serious problem in the country, and this film does provide a microscopic amount of information on the subject. While it won't mean much to audiences previously unaware of the situation, Life and Debt will surely rile up those who have first-hand knowledge of the problem.
And that, no doubt, is exactly what Black was aiming for.