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Jamaica, which gained its independence from Britain in 1962, is now some US$9 billion in debt. The growing debt is contrasted with the decline of Jamaican agriculture and dairy farming, blamed on the terms and conditions of the original 1995 US$50 million loan from the World Monetary Fund, World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank. Those terms and conditions include restrictions on the Jamaican Government such as high interest rates on loans to farmers, absence of trade subsidies. The spiralling loss of independence is contrasted with the view that hedonistic, beer drinking, uninformed tourists see of Jamaica as a sensationally beautiful and laid back paradise. A furniture maker commands one of Jamaica’s few growth industries. He has turned to making coffins, cashing in on the violence which foments beneath a thickening pall of poverty and gloom. The narration uses passages from Jamaica Kincaid’s book, A Small Place. 

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
This obviously biased and angry film is a heart-felt and patriotic essay on the economic and social poverty in Jamaica, which it largely blames the World Monetary Fund, World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank. It certainly raises some valid questions about the terms and conditions of the loans to third world countries, and the way it is presented here, it seems absurdly counter productive. I also find myself asking whether perhaps the Jamaican leadership might have to bear some responsibility for things; and how inept everyone in politics and business seems to be, when attempting to put something right they all get it so wrong. 

But this is a film review, not a political (or macro economic) one. The factors the film puts forward may or may not be tested, valid or complete; I am unable to say. (As a journalist, I was told to remember the dictum: there are three sides to every story – yours, mine and the facts…) As a film, Life and Debt is patchy; it succeeds in attracting our attention, but soon loses it with the growing complexity and overt bias of its economic case. But even if we skim over some of the detail and focus on the main thrust, the film makes a serious strategic mistake in using extracts from Jamaica Kincaid’s novel under footage of tourists lounging, playing, drinking and generally loafing about. You, the tourist, see only the surface of Jamaican society, and not, for example, what happened after you flush the toilet in your splendid hotel; where does the waste go? There is no proper sewage system. You, the tourist, don’t realise what a mess we’re in, as you enjoy our beautiful beaches, the sun, the ambiance. This approach adds a perplexing, misplaced bitter tone and a confusing message: is visiting Jamaica now a political statement and a bad one at that? 

If the film’s heart is in the right place, it’s head has been carried away. The suggestion here is that the big bad IMF screwed Jamaica, and globalisation is BAD. Such simplifications don’t help the people of Jamaica, nor the film. The one issue Life And Debt does address well is the so called ‘free zones’ that were set up by the naïve Jamaican government (on some idiot’s suggestion) where Jamaicans could be employed at slave rates by international companies to assemble foreign products. Due to the greed of the companies, these were a miserable failure. This subject alone could have filled an entire doco. 

Review by Keith Lofthouse:

Jamaica: beautiful people; beautiful place...basket case. In glorious, golden Montego Bay, a door opens into a luxurious hotel room in which towels, twisted into the shapes of white swans, lay neck to neck on a king-sized bed. Meanwhile, Ugly Americans, over-stuffed into their paunch-hugging swimsuits, are creating a ruckus down by the pool. It’s a beer-swilling contest and the amber fluid that cascades down their quivering chins, empties into that pristine bay, along with all that they flush down the S-bend. Jamaica can’t afford decent sewerage and so the Caribbean is a toilet and in it, the island sits like a turd. In Kingston, the capital, you can smell it. A garbage truck rolls into the local tip and is ransacked by youths, scavenging with the gulls and cattle through scraps until there is nothing left for the rats. 

The misery began in 1976 when Jamaica gained independence from Great Britain. The eloquent Michael Manley, who stood on an anti-IMF platform and promised self-sufficiency, was elected PM on a barnstorming speech in which he declared how “the Government will not accept anybody, anywhere in the world telling us what to do in our own country.” But in 1977 he was forced to sign Jamaica’s first IMF loan agreement and the nation has been in their grip ever since. Using a range of current, news and archival footage, Black documents a paradise in decline. 

The voiceover, adapted by Jamaica Kincaid from her book, A Small Place, is assigned a quiet militancy and a repressed rage. A local woman tells how she earns the equivalent of US$30 a fortnight sewing underwear for her American employer in an IMF-sponsored sweatshop. We see dairy farmers dumping fresh, wholesome milk before sending their cows to the slaughterhouse when cheap imported U.S. milk powder usurps the local supply. We hear of off-shore poultry wholesalers who demand the return of impounded stocks of 20-year-old chicken, insisting that their putrid meat was really meant for Haiti. Between disastrous tales of economic mismanagement and woe, we endure the weasel-faced deputy director of the IMF, Stanley Fischer, whose flint-hearted “fund” rips 53 cents from every dollar of Jamaican revenue to repay their $4.5 billion debt. Black’s vivid contrasts, between the beauty and the squalor, the haves and have-nots, the despairing and uncaring, seize the heart. Manley, his face lined by years of negotiation and sorrow as the debt grew larger and the hole sinks deeper, died a broken man weeks after his interview. And so this searing and powerful documentary could just as easily be called Death And Debt. In Jamaica these days, no two things can be surer.

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CAST: Documentary narrated by Belinda Becker, Jamaica Kincaid AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: AUSTRALIAN RELEASE:

PRODUCER: Stephanie Black

DIRECTOR: Stephanie Black

SCRIPT: Stephanie Black & Jamaica Kincaid

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Kylie Kibbe, Richard Lannaman, Malik Hassan Sayeed

EDITOR: John Mullen

MUSIC: Matubaruka


RUNNING TIME: 82 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: Melbourne: September 18, 2003

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