Journey Through Debtor’s Prison

Stephanie Black Chronicles Jamaica’s IMF Woes

Though Kincaid's number was listed, Black was afraid to call until a friend of a friend of Kincaid's husband finessed a meeting. Black met Bob and Rita Marley's daughter Cedella while shooting music videos in Jamaica and they formed a production partnership. As for Sayeed, someone at her transfer house thought she ought to meet their client who was obsessed with Jamaica. Though her film is still without a distributor, Black hopes Life and Debt will embarrass mainstream media into doing more on globalization than depicting the counterinsurgency as left-wing loonytunes. "Everyone protesting this stuff is made to look like some dysfunctional anarchist who wants to have a Woodstock festival," says Black. "There's no aerial photos or accounting of attendance—you only see a close-up of a guy in a reverse shot fighting back after the police have banged him in the head. How come 60 Minutes hasn't broken this down? How come 20/20 hasn't broken this down? Anyonewho's done a documentary knows you're constantly being upstaged by the networks while you're writing your grant proposal, but not with this stuff."

Life and Debt portrays a situation that has already gone beyond repair. Besides the Jamaican women seen crying foul over unpaid wages before their jobs are airlifted to Honduras, the absence of organized resistance is acute. "I think the upper class is starting to realize they have responsibility, because it's not safe to live in their country anymore. But the IMF preys on a developing country until there's almost no hope. The moment when there could have been a reversal and Jamaica's own industries might become productive again is over."

Jamaica's acquiescence to the new face of imperialism is abetted by what could be called a 21st-century hypercapitalist Jedi mind trick—your basic new world order variation on buying Manhattan with $24 worth of trinkets. Call it the Golden Arches Gambit. "I've heard McDonald's is planning to open 72 restaurants on the island. It's been said that when McDonald's is coming to a country that's a bad sign, because it means that country's considered economically safe. When people in Jamaica see a McDonald's and a Taco Bell they think things are getting better because it looks like Miami and progress. Someone recently pointed out to me that the U.S. has never been at war with any country that had a McDonald's in it."

"I was coming from the typical American perspective thinking the IMF was like the Red Cross."
photo: Robin Holland
"I was coming from the typical American perspective thinking the IMF was like the Red Cross."

While traditional industries wither under the onslaught of Happy Meals and garment plantations, less savory enterprises prosper, further proof of globalization's tendency to increase the local misery index. Crime and violence on the island have gone off the meter in recent years. This in turn affords greater opportunities for security and attack-dog firms and for postmortem services as well. "There's a coffin maker in the film who made furniture for 20-odd years," says Black. "For the last two years he's only made coffins. Every day there's another funeral; in fact there's another five funerals. There's no more local commercials because everybody's watching cable, so all those people who made commercials are videotaping funerals. That's a booming business. The whole thing is so twisted. Nobody could make it up. Something is wrong with this picture, and it's going to explode."

Related articles:

Lenora Todaro's review of Life and Debt.

Amy Taubin's review of the 12th Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, which opens with Life and Debt.

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