A message to all humanists: Stephanie Black’s Life and Debt, which opens this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival on Friday, will begin a weeklong run at Cinema Village the day after. If you love your mother or Karl Marx, pack the house. This methodically rabble-rousing film can be read two ways: face-on as a laser-sighted exposé of Jamaica’s economic strangulation by an IMF hell-bent on fomenting chaos and dependency in the name of slave-wage sweatshops and the almighty Mickey Dee’s, or, from a slightly more askew angle, as the grimmest Black science-fiction movie of all time—a tale of one very small Black planet’s near hopeless struggle against a technologically superior alien adversary more malevolent than anybody’s Borg.
We learn of Jamaican farmers, food producers, and policy makers coerced by the IMF to dismantle their own prodigious food industries so that subsidized foreign competitors can crush them in the local market. We’re reminded of the Clinton-led suit against Jamaica’s banana industry on behalf of Chiquita and Dole, which ensured that those brand names now controlling 95 percent of the world’s banana trade can scarf up JA’s minuscule portion too. We hear of offshore poultry wholesalers who demand the return of their impounded caches of 20-year-old chicken, blithely claiming their poison meat was really intended for Haiti. The film also gives an inhuman face to the IMF in the form of the devil incarnate, deputy director Stanley Fischer, who plays the smug villain with mustache-twirling relish. The director confesses that “the film is supposed to make you mad,” and hopes that editing it in her bedroom aided in transferring her sense of mission to the viewer.
To some people’s chagrin, Stephanie Black isn’t. Phenotypically Black, that is. This accident of birth has given rise to confusion in certain quarters. Like the judges of a festival in Martinique a few years back who revoked the prize awarded her doc H-2 Worker (on Caribbean migrant exploitation) upon learning of her melanin deficiencies. Or those Nation of Islam emissaries who believed a true-blue soul sister was on the other end of the line. Black’s reticence in correcting them meant being treated to some choice commentary about the white man. Consider Life and Debt further proof that the mojo’s moving finger doesn’t play skin games or favorites.
In her civilian life, the modest if fervent Black produces segments for Sesame Street in Jamaica. “The Sesame Street people told me I had to stop shooting everything in Jamaica because people would start to think it was a Jamaican show, so I rounded up every white kid on the island and made my next production look like Miami,” she says. Her Sesame clips proved to have tactical value for Life and Debt. She provided the World Bank samples of her work for Big Bird’s nesting place—which explains how she was able to fly under their radical radar and hand the slippery Fischer enough rope to hang himself.
Besides exposing globalization as genocide by calculator—and in a way anyone with a first-grade education and a heart could grasp—Black’s film astounds through its access to counterintelligence, incisive locations, and subjects. Besides Darth Fischer, there is footage of former Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings, Haiti’s Jean-Paul Aristide, and, most movingly, former Jamaican PM Michael Manley, the latter recorded scant weeks before he succumbed to illness. Production-credit trainspotters will note the Marley family’s Tuff Gong logo and that Jamaica Kincaid wrote the narration. Fans of Spike Lee’s Clockers, Girl 6, and He Got Game, Hype Williams’s Belly, and Lauryn Hill’s “X-Factor” video will recognize the name of ace cinematographer Malik Sayeed. Who is this Stephanie Black, and how does she rate so many heavy hitters?
An NYU film school dropout, Black left behind a promising career in environmental activism to nurture her film bug. Shooting part of H-2 Worker on the island is what set her off about Jamaica’s economic situation. “I’ve spent time in parts of Africa where the poverty is just overwhelming and you say, OK, it’s going to take a long time to fix something this massive. But Jamaica is a small country whose resources are phenomenal. You think, How could a country this rich be this poor? There’s also a strange tolerance of the poverty level. All this besieged and bewildered me. Every day in [Jamaican daily] The Gleaner, though, there is an article about the IMF and the World Bank. It’s a strange thing to be an American in a country where everyone knows more about the IMF than you. I was coming from the typical American perspective thinking the IMF was like the Red Cross or something. The structure of the film reflects how I got my information—which is from the bottom up.”
When Black tells how she got the Ivy-towered Kincaid to be down she sounds like your classic guerrilla filmmaker-turned-stalker. “I wrote to her a lot, over four years’ worth of letters, because her book A Small Place was the closest text to what I was feeling inside. I love her work, her voice, her militancy, and her poetry. I was interested in translating this postcolonial text with its postcolonial anger to the film’s current-day neocolonial anger. One time Nelson George was doing a reading at Barnes & Noble and he said, ‘I’d really like to thank you all for coming on a night when you could’ve gone to hear Jamaica Kincaid.’ I jumped out of my seat and began squeezing out of the crowd to get the Voice and find out where Jamaica Kincaid was reading. I was obsessed.”
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.”
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.”
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.