Jamaica is so staggeringly beautiful that in Life and Debt, Stephanie Black‘s cool-headed but blistering indictment of globalization and the racist international economic policies that have shoved that country into crushing poverty, the place and its people circumvent despair to dazzle you. A fiery orange sunset looks like a painting. Indigo waters crash over rocks, then settle calmly. There’s a seamless harmony of folk and their environment as brown bodies stand in front of homes painted vibrant hues of blue and green, or as farmers walk over stretches of land that — even as the crops are dying — remain picturesque. All this is balanced, however, with scenes of massive civil unrest: laid-off workers marching out of factories, protesters outlining the sweatshop conditions exploited by the likes of Tommy Hilfiger. It‘s an endless loop of contradictions (natural beauty and resilience versus the debilitating greed and bigotry of outside forces), and the pressures of living inside them have pushed Jamaica to the edge of collapse. But Life is not just a lament for a country fucked over since Columbus landed on its shores in 1494. It’s about how the past lives in the present, how the rush toward globalization by First World countries is merely the latest manifestation of the colonialists‘ prerogative, how disaster looms on the horizon for just about everyone.
Tourism is the lifeblood of the Jamaican economy, and Black has set up her film as both document of and counterpoint to what tourists encounter when they visit. She cuts from farms and local industries shutting down in the face of pressure from multinationals, to tourists drinking, dancing and shopping in carefully sustained oblivion. She weaves in dry commentary on consumerism, institutional racism and cultural banality that is passed off as economic progress. To that end, Black is given an able assist by the great Jamaica Kincaid, whose 1988 nonfiction book, A Small Place, serves as the basis for the film’s voice-over. Early in the movie, as a tour guide delivers her spiel for a busload of visitors, pointing out landmarks and points of interest (”We have a Baskin-Robbins and McDonald‘s on your right-hand side,“ she beams), Black cuts to old newsreel footage of a young Queen Elizabeth getting out of a state car in full royal drag. Narrator Belinda Becker (droll and wittily precise) reads Kincaid’s words: ”You are driving on a road and it is called the Queen‘s Highway. When it was built, we were ruled over by something called a queen. We do not have a queen anymore.“ Cut to a shot of McDonald’s golden arches. The point is made, not belabored. Jamaica was delivered from the paternalistic rule of Great Britain to the money-driven rule of the marketplace, and Jamaicans are still reeling from the blow.
As cinematographers Malik Sayeed, Kyle Kibbe, Richard Lannaman and Alex Nepomniaschy capture the country in everything from black-and-white starkness to robust, painterly beauty, various talking heads (including a Jamaican economics professor and former Prime Minister Michael Manley) trace Jamaica‘s current woes to the birth and policies of the International Monetary Fund, initially created in 1944 to help rebuild war-torn Europe by issuing short-term loans to struggling countries. Says Manley, ”You ask whose interests [the IMF serves]? Ask who set it up.“ The point is highlighted by another crucial editing choice: All the tourists Black shows in the film, though from around the world, are white. The workers, of course, are black. That’s not a choice made out of racial myopia, but to drive home the fact that — whether addressing the question of to whom the overriding bulk of the world‘s tourist industry caters or discussing the factors that come into play when shaping and enforcing international economic policies — white-skin privilege and entitlement are the brutal reality. That point is further underscored at the film’s end when the camera captures white people cavorting on the beach, as Becker intones, ”You see yourself lying on the beach, enjoying that amazing sun . . . you see yourself eating some delicious, locally grown food . . . you see yourself, you see yourself, you see yourself.“