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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Life and Debt
Life and Debt
New Yorker Video // Unrated // June 24, 2003
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Don Houston | posted August 8, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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Movie: Documentaries have long interested me as a source of information, albeit biased in most cases, about a variety of topics. During these times of economic uncertainty, there seems to be an upswing in documentaries that tell people what they want to hear. Most of the time, such documentaries focus on perceived slights by entities that the less well off think are the root of all their individual problems. Such is the case with Life And Debt.

The documentary takes a look at the economic situation in Jamaica, a country so far into debt that it's unlikely to ever emerge. Director Stephanie Black helms this effort to bring Jamaica Kinkaid's book (she narrates the movie), A Small Place, to film. Those of you who've been in debt know that having too much of it limits what you can do in life, and the film spends a lot of time looking at a couple of reasons why, in Kinkaid's eyes at least, the country got in the shape it's in.

The show started by showing the riots experienced by Jamaica several years back. It highlighted how rioting had caused a number of deaths, introduced the IMF (International Monetary Fund) as a player in the situation, showed a Baskin Robbins commercial, and then featured a singer wailing about the rich before quoting the Bible's passages about debt.

Welcome To Jamaica:
The body of the movie opened up with a glimpse of the beauty of the lovely Caribbean island of Jamaica with plenty of shots of the beach, the airplanes and lush tropical scenery along with some tourists about to enjoy their vacations. The darker side of the equation, how tourists are sheltered, how they get to pass through customs fairly easily, and the exchange rates are touched on just before the blame game begins.

The International Monetary Fund:
1944, WWII is coming to a close and the major powers want to avoid the economic conditions that led up to the war so they found the IMF. It's primary goals were to promote stability and economic growth. A few pointed jabs by former Prime Minster Michael Manley but fairly accurate.

The narrator points out that Jamaica was once ruled by the "bad minded English" but what kind of independence did they trade their political freedom for? Manley then chimed in about how former colonies find themselves out of luck when the bills come in that were formerly subsidized, the countries unravel.

After a soundbite or two from Manley's campaign speeches about the country not being for sale, he quickly changed his turn when the oil embargo of the early 70's slam the country. The IMF spokesman points out various realities of borrowing money, including the IMF's requirement that a country must accept certain conditions, which will promote long term growth and not a quick fix. Cue to scenes of schools built from public outhouses and the lack of new hospitals due to the money crunch, before getting to see a professor from the West Indies claim that the IMF purposely designs the conditions to prevent the loans from being paid back.

The Sunshine Guarantee:
The general hotel policy that allows you to get a free day's stay if there's no sun all day is covered. There were comments about the lack of sewage treatment plants, the fact that your food as a tourist will likely come from Miami and not be locally grown, is looked at with great interest.

Island Production:
This section mentioned how locally grown food is more expensive than food shipped in from elsewhere. Because of this, even the locals buy the imported food and the local economy suffers when fewer farmers and workers are needed. Economics on a small island works that way. When you import the seed, the fertilizer, the machinery, and everything but the land, sunshine, and workforce, it was pointed out as being tough to make a profit.

Trade Barriers:
Previously, trade barriers that Jamaica had in place prevented it's citizens from accessing world markets. By doing so, it kept prices of imported food and goods (those allowed into the country), higher so the local consumers would choose the local goods. Trade barriers harm the consumer even if they protect the producer (when given a choice, most people buy the cheaper good if the quality is the same and assign a specific value to anything of higher/lower quality-pure economics). Manley railed that Jamaica couldn't use IMF money and charge a lower interest rate to it's farmers than it paid the IMF for the money in the first place (subsidies are costly to the country and it went against the agreement).

Before the loans, Jamaica had a thriving dairy industry. The country subsidized the industry, making it more lucrative for the farmers and it had trade barriers that made importing milk very expensive. When the subsidies were removed and the trade barriers lowered, the industry couldn't compete with the huge companies from the USA. The footage of the dairy dumping large amounts of milk into ditches rather than either give it away or sell it at a (slight) loss, spoke volumes.

The international politics of banana farming came into play here. Two companies control the vast majority of the industry in the world and they filed a protest, via former USA President Bill Clinton, that a system in Europe was allowing Jamaica to send bananas to Europe without any taxes/tariffs/duties which was unfair to the companies in other countries (Honduras, Central America, etc. Because some of those countries allow strong arm tactics in labor relations, their employees make less than Jamaican workers and this means that without tariffs on competitors, Jamaican bananas couldn't compete solely on price.

Tourists leading sheltered lives, playing drinking games and having a good time while the locals lead poor lives was the point. Lots of class envy was discussed here.

Free Zones:
In an agreement to invest millions of dollars into Jamaica, large companies set up "free zones" where they would have locals sew or otherwise process clothing or items needing assembly/processing, in exchange for tax breaks. The film rails that the workers are paid less than their American counterparts and they aren't treated as well. Unions are not allowed so company's have more control over their costs. There is no local control over the process which makes some people upset.

Life And Debt:
The USA controls about 17.5% of the IMF, due to how much it contributes to the organization. Japan, Germany, and a host of other countries that are mostly Western in nature control over 80% of the organization and some of the smaller countries dislike this fact. Over 180 countries participate in the group and some of the smaller countries are upset that they don't get more representation than how much they pay for.

Most people in the USA know about the little hamburger chain. In Jamaica, there was a local restaurant by the same name that wasn't nearly as old as the multinational chain. Under the loan agreement, copyrights had to be enforced so the small guy lost out. Further, local farmers were upset that the restaurant chain wanted to use beef from elsewhere, that was cheaper. Every hamburger patty (or what pases for one in a McDonald's burger) bought elsewhere was one that wouldn't be bought locally.

Chicken Parts:
In a similar situation, chicken farmers were upset that locally raised chickens weren't given preference over local chickens by the foreign owned companies.

Peppers, Spices And Tourism:
Under a global economy, each country will gravitate towards producing items it has a competitive edge with. Jamaica finds itself squeezed on most fronts in marketing something. The film conveniently forgot about the booming marijuana crop that the country produces and sells but tourism is mentioned a whole lot (although usually from the "ugly American" angle) while the filmmakers rail that it's more important for the island to be self sufficient (which, as an island, it can't become).

The overall circumstances of the economic situation were that the local industries couldn't compete, the requirement to pay back the money borrowed too hard on the citizens of Jamaica, and the policies of the IMF with regard to trade barriers and such too onerous. In essence, they want the money without the strings.

Just Human Beings:
Jamaica's history of slavery and dependence was slightly discussed and the settlement by "European rubbish" was touched on. It pointed out that after slavery, all of the people, former master and slave alike, were "just human beings".

Be Still Babylon:
The documentary wrapped up with a bit of commentary and some music. Most of it was far less whiny than the rest of the film but the bible thumping was a bit heavy handed in it's own way.

Life And Debt is certainly a flawed look at an economic situation but interesting enough for me to rate as a Rent It to anyone who's studied politics, history, economics, or wants to see why some of the IMF/WTO protestors use Jamaica as an example of corporate greed destroying a small, defenseless country by playing to said country's greed. If you'd like to look at the factual basis for how the International Monetary Fund works, and not a slanted look, check out The Real IMF.

Picture: The picture was presented in 1.85:1 ratio widescreen anamorphic format color. The picture was generally as clear as you'd expect a documentary to be, although some of the source materials and interviews were not perfect. The fleshtones were accurate in the modern shots but the sharpness varied a lot, as did the lighting. There was no full frame version on the dvd as advertised on several websites.

Sound: The audio was presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo English and was generally clear. The soundtrack was pretty solid with a variety of Jamaica flavored music. There was closed captioning for the hearing impaired.

Extras: The best extra was the director's commentary but she really didn't add a lot of information to the show. There were large gaps between her comments and the content was not exactly helpful. The next best extra was the additional footage of the interview with Michael Manley, who died shortly after giving it. There was also a music video "Mr. Heartless" by Anthony B., a trailer, and a photogallery showing some of the protestors around the world who don't like the IMF and other organizations that provide capital to small countries. There were some excerpts from the soundtrack as well.

Final Thoughts: I'm not a fan of farming subsidies in this country, or other barriers to trade throughout the world. Such barriers impact us all negatively. I'm also not a fan of people with too much time on their hands who violently protest policies that are accepted by two parties to a contract-such as between the IMF and Jamaica. The moral of the story is that you shouldn't borrow money if you don't like the attached strings. If poverty is upsetting to you, go help the poor rather than attack a system that is based on fundamental principles of finance. That there's a market for such capitalism-bashing documentaries as Life And Debt and any Michael Moore release shows the willingness of people to be manipulated by the emotional pleas of the "have-nots". Perhaps the best solution for all concerned is to cut off all loans to such countries. That way, all parties will be able to fend for themselves. Lastly, any consumers out there that feel the need to protest, should start growing their own food, walking to work and protests, and otherwise become 100% self sufficient before trying to impose your own morality on the rest of us. Check out the dvd only if you really want a chuckle over the capitalism-bashing that permeates the movie.

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