If you want to feel pleased with yourself, your country, or your recent tropical vacation, don’t watch “Life and Debt,” Stephanie Black’s 2001 documentary about the relationship between the IMF and Jamaica. The film is antagonistic–it features lots of shots of overweight, drunk and dopey looking Americans–but the interviews with Jamaican farmers, former Prime Minister Michael Manley, and IMF officials are informed and smart.
The film’s narration is based on Jamaica Kincaid’s “A Very Small Place,” (Penguin, 1988) a must read if you are in the mood for flagellation or some refreshingly confrontational honesty. Jamaica Kincaid writes about tourists, “…you make the leap from being that nice blob sitting like a boob in your amniotic sac of the modern experience to being a person visiting heaps of death and ruin and feeling alive and inspired by the sight of it; to being a person lying on some far away beach, your stilled body stinking and glistening in the sand.”
Not surprisingly, Kincaid has a lot of critics and there is a valid argument that her work would be more powerful if her prose were somewhat measured. But I appreciate her antagonism. I prefer it to feeling cheaply pleased.
Actually, Kincaid does lighten up a bit towards the end of the essay (and narration) with a plea to see things from a different perspective. “That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere…Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives—most natives of the world—cannot go anywhere. They are too poor.”
While the not-so-subtle subtext of “Life and Debt,” is that Americans and Europeans are complicit in the exploitation of Jamaican farmers, the larger message is about the role the IMF plays in the destruction of local economies throughout the developing world—with Jamaica as a case-study. At 126 minutes, “Life and Debt” is longer and more thorough than most documentaries and has a solid soundtrack that features Peter Tosh and Bob Marley.