Life and Debt

(Stephanie Black, USA, 2001)


I confess my impatience with watching documentaries in a cinema. More often than not, I end up asking myself, "Why isn't this on television?" Life and Debt, like Wildness (2003), offers good reasons for such a crossover.

Life and Debt hits one immediately with its central, stark difference from television documentary. It aggresses the spectator.

The voice-over narration, spoken by Jamaica Kincaid from her powerful text "A Small Place", is aimed relentlessly at the duped, ignorant traveller who sees only the pretty, filtered surface of Jamaican life, not its appalling social conditions and economic realities.

This richly informative film targets the workings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. With implacable and devastating logic, the mechanism of massive national debt – with all the coercive restrictions that it brings – is laid bare.

It is not only the angry victims of this system, from farmers to former Social Democrat Prime Minister Michael Manley, who illuminate its effects in candid interviews. Stanley Fischer, former Deputy Director of the IMF, offers a chilling embodiment of institutional rationalisation in the service of invasive American power.

Director Stephanie Black, an American activist, laudably resists the temptation to indulge in the distracting spectacle of landscape vistas that are pleasing to the tourist eye, or to play up to the consumer market for reggae music.

She does not fall into the double-talking trap that Wim Wenders did in the otherwise marvellous Buena Vista Social Club (1999), offering music and dance as the resilient, reassuring soul of a people crushed by political and economic oppression.

Few films in recent years have left me as depressed and disturbed as Life and Debt. In the realm of contemporary political cinema – which, for once, is able to speak beyond its underground ghetto – this is a fine thing.

MORE political documentary: Darwin's Nightmare, Bowling for Columbine

© Adrian Martin September 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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