Filmmaker depicts recent economic history of Jamaica

Stephanie Black addresses the University after a showing of the documentary, Life and Debt | October 26, 2004

Many eyes were opened on campus on Tuesday, Oct. 26, during a viewing of Life and Debt, a film by director Stephanie Black that documents the relationship between Jamaica and foreign economic agendas set forth by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and the World Bank. Faculty, staff and students gathered to view the documentary as part of the University’s fourth annual Academic Day.

The day’s theme centered on the importance of ethics, which is a topic dealt with in Black’s film.

Black is an award-winning producer and director who won best documentary and best cinematography awards at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival for her feature-length documentary, H-2 Worker. Her work includes documentary segments for Sesame Street and programs seen on Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, and music videos for artists such as Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers.

Using narration from Jamaica Kincaid’s award-winning text, A Small Place, Life and Debt focuses on the individual stories of Jamaicans whose existence is directly impacted by international lending, free trade and globalization. While many tourists, or, as Black calls them, “victims of a lack of knowledge,” enjoy the island’s beauty and climate from the confines of an all-inclusive resort, farmers struggle to sell produce in their own country because they must compete with cheaper, imported goods not subject to tariff.

Black’s film includes interviews with former Prime Minister Michael Manley, who reluctantly signed Jamaica's first loan agreement with the IMF in 1977. Today, Jamaica owes more than $4.5 billion to the IMF, the World Bank and the IADB. Black also conducted interviews with dairy and banana plantation owners who also struggle to compete with the world market, and garment workers who sew in Free Trade Zones, making less than legal minimum wage and who were replaced by Asian workers if they protested.

“It’s one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places on earth and what catalyzed making the film was wondering how a country this rich in resources, rich in agriculture, rich in culture, rich in beauty could actually be this poor,” said Black in a short question and answer session following the film.

Black fell in love with the country while filming another documentary and eventually moved to Jamaica and got a job with a local production company making $75 a week. She filmed Life and Debt in 1999-2000 and says, sadly, that while the language of the IMF has changed, the policies have not. She also noted a danger to the country’s dependence on the tourist trade.

“The Jamaicans have a saying that when America sneezes, Jamaica gets pneumonia,” Black said, referring to the decline in travel after Sept. 11, 2001, when Americans were afraid to fly.

For more information about the film, visit www.lifeanddebt.org.