Jamaica’s Life(debt) and Death

by Rikki Seddon

Stephanie Black’s 2001 documentary film
Life + Debt

The economic downturn in the West has been difficult; with job losses, paycuts and nation-wide deficits. It bears little similarity however to the deprivation and hardships that Jamaica has had to face over several decades. Stephanie Black’s documentary gives a voice to the people directly affected by Jamaica’s financial losses and makes us question the working conditions in beautiful countries we frequent as tourists. Its title is a play on words with the Jamaican accent being so strong as to pronounce death as debt. Thus to speak of a country’s debt is to be speaking of its rapid mortality.

The film is inspired by Jamaica Kincaid’s 1988 book A Small Place wherein she gives her personal account of the problems that Antigua has faced in the renovation and funding of buildings, government rule and parasitic tourism. Modified quotes from the book become a pseudo-poetic narration throughout the film giving it a contemplative structure and providing insight into the parallel issues that are apparently so common amongst the islands of the West Indies.

The film’s main focus are the businesses that once thrived on this island; local farming, dairy production and banana plantations as well as those that have arrived more recently – set up on the pretence that they would provide thousands of jobs for local people – like fast food restaurants and the capital Kingston’s ‘Free Zone’. This gated and guarded dockside facility is “like a state or country” but not subject to quality control and so named for the ideology of a ‘free market’ but in reality is a multitude of sweatshops where the locals are paid so little the companies are having their products made virtually for free! This free market idea perpetuates throughout the film, being the qualifier for America’s commercial domination. Where Jamaicans used to sell their fresh produce and milk without concern there is now a monopoly of “oranges from California, potatoes from Idaho”, enormous crates of milk powder and poor cuts of meat all supplied for less than the locals can produce. The background to these images are the legendary and uplifting songs of Harry Bellafonte’s ‘Day-O’ and Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’ strangely out of place for such sad stories but serving as a reminder of the ‘Old Jamaica’ so fondly remembered; of sufficiency and goodwill.

Scenes of tanned American and European tourists kept entertained and served by Jamaicans are littered throughout the film and contrasted by real news reports of violent riots. Here we are reminded constantly the cause and effect of Jamaica’s debt and struggle for survival; menial work to make ends meet. We hear a member of the International Monetary Fund and the views of the large corporations’ rationalisation and justification for their territorial control. Black is generous in her time allocations for these political viewpoints, allowing them to make their case regularly throughout the film and then demonstrating the true conditions that their policies have induced. Black reveals how the loans that are serviced by US banks to Jamaica has its people indebted, commercially exploited, with culmination in a life debt that will never be paid off.

Word Count 516

12th March 2011 4:45pm

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4 Comments to “Jamaica’s Life(debt) and Death”

  1. This is a very informative review. I have not seen the film but the review has certainly inspired me to look out for it. It also sounds like a familiar story of labor exploitation where the margins are being continuously reduced and pared back to the bone. This is surely a result of the widening global market – the free market referred to in the review – where wages can be pushed down to the lowest global sweatshop rates. Sadly the ripple effects are being felt almost everywhere as more and more service jobs are being outsourced to the lowest paid workers in the world, leaving westernized countries increasingly exposed and with escalating unemployment rates. So I wonder if in future the view – that the affluent west is worlds apart from the West Indies – will hold so true in the future?

  2. Your use of “rapid mortality” was interesting, I’m still deciding if it’s awkward or poetic. Is the tourism “parasitic” or merely opportunistic? Your summarization and tying in of A Small Place was concise and effective. As far as music I found the film’s use of Buju Banton’s “Consequence” to be very poignant.

  3. I did think long and hard about reffering to tourists as parasites, but in this context I don’t think it’s too strong a word. A parasite (tourism) saps at an organism’s (Jamaica’s) lifeblood, removing the goodness (culture) and leaving it with a gaping wound (debt) struggling to survive (no work left).
    In comparison opportunistic animals tend to feed on the carrion of an another that’s already dying or dead. Jamaica was quite healthy before America started opening the gap in the markets.

    Much appreciate your comment, Liam, and googling that song now 🙂

  4. Your break down leaves me continuing to support my original position. Jamaica’s debt is the result of their relationship with the World Bank. This has created the debt and jobless and weakness of that state. Tourism, I would argue, by contrast exists there because of the opportunity created by Jamaica’s depleted state. To use your analogy tourism is the Hyena feasting on the scraps of a Jamaica that the IMF killed.

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