Free trade, fair trade, and the voices between.


directed by Stephanie Black runs Feb. 22-28 at Varsity

SILENT JAMAICANS watch TV news reports about abandoned workers and the loss of local industries in this documentary as if to say: These are stories close at hand, and they speak for themselves. The debilitating impact of globalization on the impoverished island nation is impossible to ignore in this film by Stephanie Black, but Life and Debt won’t do much to answer critics who say that opponents of the World Trade Organization are big on heart but short on reason.

Based on Jamaica Kincaid’s 1987 nonfiction book A Small Place (with narration provided by the author), Debt is a personal affair in which farmers and seamstresses stand up and simply tell what happened to them—how they lost their jobs, their markets, their livelihoods at the hands of a brutal global market. It’s certainly a legitimate approach. When advocates of globalization employ formulas like the Human Development Index to suggest that bleeding hearts just don’t see the whole picture, how else to reply but through stark, specific realism?

Yet Debt‘s succession of first-person stories begins to sound as if a lot of conventional wisdom is being echoed. Can the victims here really explain what caused their misfortune? Perhaps in the particulars, but unfortunately Debt doesn’t alternate these undeniably affecting stories with any outside big-picture sources.

Debt‘s thesis—that Jamaica’s economy has been bled dry by manipulative bankers since it accepted loans from the International Monetary Fund in 1977—is easy to follow but ultimately unsatisfying. Populist former Prime Minister Michael Manley describes how he succumbed under duress to IMF terms, but Debt doesn’t address the views of Manley’s critics, who say he bore the blame for putting Jamaica in desperate financial straits to begin with. Standing in for Manley’s archenemy is an IMF suit who bloodlessly intones on the fiscal hoops the IMF requires borrowers to jump through as if he hasn’t even been asked about Jamaica in specific. The interview feels like a setup.

Debt does use Kincaid’s words to good effect, contrasting her dismay with scenes of foppish tourists partying on the ruins of Jamaica’s economy. The fact that Black herself is not entirely an interloper, having previously exposed the miseries of immigrant Caribbean farmworkers in 1989’s H-2 Worker, is also a strength that prevents Debt from disintegrating into a leftist screed cooked up in a college dorm.

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