Revealing the Transparent: Stephanie Black Unveils the Jamaican World Beyond Tourism

For many, the rhetoric of globalization is spouted only by academics and protestors. But for those that live in the throws of the IMF and World Bank on a day-today basis, the theory and posturing are lost in a life of poverty. Thanks to the film Life and Debt, however, the ugly face of globalization has more than dry text and lectures to describe it.

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by George B. Sanchez

February.23rd.2002


There is an undeniable dilemma in discussing globalization.

"Economics in our culture is somehow made prohibitive in a certain way," believes Stephanie Black, director of the acclaimed documentary Life and Debt. Aside from the air of intellect that surrounds globalism, the topic has yet to be addressed in its entirety, often falling to one side of a polemic discussion. For the right, globalism heralds the promise of a brave new world -- one of infinite prosperity and opportunity. For the left, globalism is the insidious child of capitalism -- the tentacles of multinational corporations reaching across borders and violating workers and human rights around the world. For the working person, globalization is a word that seemingly has little to do with the day to day struggle for survival -- just another debate for the privileged. Informed observers tend to leave debate to the experts; whether it's Noam Chomsky, famed linguist and preeminent voice of dissent, or Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum. These inadequacies in understanding such a world-shaping system led to Black's decision to address globalization through Life and Debt.

Examining the Third World amid the process of globalism, Black found an intelligent and realistic view in the Jamaican people that is largely absent among the American public. "The people who are living under the structural adjustment programs, whose lives are impacted by this everyday, who when they go take a loan out, they know the interest rates are set by an IMF policy, have this clear understanding [of the IMF's function]." Pausing, Black adds, "That's what catalyzed the making of this film. Living in a country that was under an IMF program and realizing how little I knew about it, yet I came from the country that held the strongest voting power in the IMF, so where does my responsibility and culpability lie?"

Responsibility is a prevalent issue in the hearts of those who gathered to protest in Seattle in 1999 as with those who met in New York at the World Economic Forum, inside and outside the Waldorf-Astoria. Responsibility is key to Black's mesmerizing Life and Debt. An exhausting documentary, Life and Debt is an eloquent collage of modern Jamaica in the aftermath of free-market practice, stringent lending practices, and irreversible infrastructural changes brought on by International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and Inter-American Bank policies. "I kept asking myself this question: 'How could a country this rich -- rich in landscape, rich in culture, rich in resources -- be this poor?' It wasn't adding up and that question kept coming back to me," said Black.

A native New Yorker, Stephanie Black lived in Jamaica after working on H-2 Worker, a Sundance award-winning documentary which followed the lives of Caribbean men brought into the United States under temporary guest worker visas to cut sugar cane in Florida for American sugar corporations. Taking a job with a local production facility in Jamaica, Black's experience in a developing nation led her to question the deterioration of Jamaica's standard of living. "I would read the paper everyday and that's when I came to understand what it was to be living in a country under structural adjustment," said Black. "The more and more I came to understand about the impact of the IMF and the World Bank, certain things began to reveal themselves." Typical of many Americans, Black was uninformed as to the purpose and function of the forenamed economic entities.

"Myself, I thought the IMF was like the Red Cross. I really did," she remembered. "I thought they benevolently, good willed, good intentioned, came in, lent money, let the country do what they want and the country had to pay back. I never knew they had this far-reaching arm into the day-to-day policies of the country." Black's curiosity led her to research the IMF and WTO, which, expectedly, found the American press seldom addressed global economic practices. "You know, in one week in Jamaica, you'd have seven articles [on the IMF]. At least an article a day," said Black. "I came up with six articles over a ten-year period in [the US's] major newspapers. While the IMF was completely out of our visibility, it was completely understood by people living in Jamaica."

Life and Debt combines the voices of ordinary Jamaicans, the vision of policy-makers such as Jamaica's former Prime Minister Michael Manely and former IMF Deputy Director Stanley Fischer, and a narrative taken from Jamaica Kincaid's A Small Place, in relating the human suffering which follows globalism. Standing amid a barren field, an onion farmer questions how he is expected to compete with foreign agribusiness practices. Dairy farmers who cannot beat the price of imported powdered milk, unable to sell their product, are left with no choice but to pour gallons upon gallons of fresh milk into the red earth. Black's camera purveys cattle ranches desolate and all but abandoned -- Jamaica's beef sector is on the brink of collapsing from the influx of cheaper, low-grade foreign meat.

The excruciating reality of Jamaica echoes in the voice former Prime Minister Michael Manley. Elected in 1976 on a "No IMF" platform, left with no choice, Manley approached the IMF for financial aid one year later. "The country that comes out is nothing like the country that could have been," said Manely in his final recorded interview. Juxtaposed with images of overweight, white tourists chugging beer, attended to by the locals, and overly concerned with the price of T-shirts, this view of Jamaica leaves the audience with the bitter truth of post-colonial struggle in a globally integrated economy.

Life and Debt is an unnerving film. With the exception of various news clips and Black's interview with Fischer, the voice of Life and Debt is the real voice of Jamaica. There is no white interpreter. As exemplified by Black's film, the voice of the marginalized seldom takes the media's spotlight and the few instances when it does, the listening audience may be surprised to hear what they do, especially when the voice is well spoken and intelligent.

"Maybe the film is non-traditional in that you really don't see black people talking and white people not speaking -- white people being the minority in this context," said Black. An unavoidable lesson to be heeded by detractors of anti-globalization protest is the fact that the film's voice of dissent is not middle-class American college kids, but impoverished Jamaicans. Life and Debt is an extraordinary mediated example -- like the Zapatista use of the Internet -- of the traditionally voiceless no longer being rendered mute.

As for the tourist scenes, which may cause American audiences unease, Black's response is simple. "I'm not making fun of the tourists at all, I don't mean to be naïve, but I see myself as one of those tourists. The tourists for me are a metaphor for Americans," explained Black. "The same way tourists might not know what's going on outside the boundaries for their hotels, the tourists are for me a metaphor of Americans who do not know the policies that are being acted out in our name outside our own country. The use of the tourists was just to question what is our role in all of this."

Black's critics have ventured to say Life and Debt will grant a new life to the globalism debate, reinvigorating a word which may have lost its weight in its exhausting use by both the left and the right. Whether or not this may be true, Black has achieved the radical. Black has given unwilling victims of globalism a face and, most importantly, a voice. Despite the fact she compares film making to cave drawing and believes film to be a more emotional medium than informational, Black has surmounted an incredible task by documenting globalization.
"Getting a lot of information across is a challenge, so this was a particular challenge because this was 'How do you make this invisible subject visible?," said Black. "How do you make the impact of policies a visible subject?'

Making the transparent clear, Life and Debt has broken one of the most prominent barriers that corralled activists engaged in the movement to halt globalization. A triumph in understanding globalization in context of the human element, Black's sense is realistic (if not pragmatic) in recognizing a film cannot buck the system, only people can.

"I don't think the movie is going to make any more change than these protests," said Black. "What now exists is that people can read these articles and not feel alienated from them and hopefully understand them and be able to watch and not be so naïve."


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