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LIFE AND DEBT (NR)
New Yorker Films Official Site Director: Stephanie Black Producer: Stephanie Black Written by: Jamaica Kincaid (narration) Cast: Belinda Becker (narration)

Rating: out of 5


I am not stupid. Nor am I dumb, simple, dull, thick or idiotic. I can converse at great length on many subjects, such as film, televison, literature and sports. I even know a good bit about politics and world events, which led me to believe, what with all this knowledge, that I would be mentally fit for reviewing the film Life and Debt a documentary focusing on the economic plight of Jamaica. Unfortunately, it turns out I am no more equipped to handle this film than Terry Bradshaw is to handle the play- by-play at the Bolshoi. This movie is about as intellectual as you can get, seemingly a mere half-step above the instructional films shown to bored eleventh-graders in their government classes. Of all the things I know about, global economic structure falls far down on the list, hovering just ahead of nuclear reactor maintanince but just behind open heart surgery (I do watch ďE.R.Ē after all). So I will do my best to sum up the plot, though keep in mind my grasp of what the movie was talking about is tenuous at best.

One of the main points of the movie is to bring attention to the hardships of the Jamaican farmers. And bring attention it does, painting a very stark picture of the misery that has befallen these good people of the soil. It seems that Jamaica as a country is broke. And I donít mean the ďGee-I-Canít-Afford-To-Super-Size-That -Whopper-ComboĒ kind of broke. Weíre talking hardcore poverty here, and it is not getting any better. The main reason for this is the fact that their farmers canít compete in the ďGlobal Economy,Ē seeing as how they must sell their crops and what have you for much more than the farmers in South America and California. Basically, all of this is the International Monetary Fundís fault. Jamaica took loans from the IMF and was then forced to pay back in U. S. dollars, after, of course, the IMF devalued the Jamaican currency. The debt as it stands today is roughly 640 million U.S., which translates into 18 billion Jamaican dollars. To try and get this monetary monstrosity paid off, the Jamaican government has cut federal funding on schools, hospitals, and social welfare in half, leaving most of the population without the education, medicine, or money to have what we know as a good life. This is the bare bones of the problem of course. It is really a rich tapestry of issues and problems that, sadly, sailed over my head like so many economically-minded geese.

Now, letís get to the part that makes me feel less dumb. I can tell you up front that fun and this movie have never been in the same room together. Life and Debt is an exact definition of what most people hate about documentaries. Itís boring, long, and about the problems of people that we, in general, havenít really thought about since we saw Cool Runnings. What makes this movie even more dreadful to sit through is the guilt heaped upon us by the industrial-sized shovelful. Intercut with the scenes of poor, wretched farmers bemoaning their state, are scenes of Americans frolicking in the Jamaican resorts, generally enjoying ourselves like the bastards that we are. Now this pisses me off for a couple of reasons. First off, one of the only things that the country has going for it is its tourism industry. Why does the film treat the tourists as if they are themselves stealing money from the farmersí wallets? Second, this film makes a point of singling out the American tourists as boorish louts. I am fairly certain that people from all over the world visit the island for a little R-and-R, so I donít think itís particularly fair to imply that weíre the only ones being insensitive.

My main problem with the film is that the filmmakers took an issue thatís important and worthy of attention, and shot themselves in the foot by blaming all of America in general for the problems at hand, as opposed to singling out the other parties besides the IMF. I donít like leaving a movie theater feeling guilty for something I had nothing to do with. However, invoking just that reaction is, Iím pretty sure, the other main point of this film. In the end, this movie is going to get gobs of support from neo-activist, ďsocially awareĒ college students, but due to itís preachiness and rampant finger-pointing, thatís about the only group of people it will reach. To really bring an issue to light, as the filmmakers so obviously want to do, you need to make a documentary thatís both fair and intellectually stimulating. What they have created is an obtuse scolding that will stimulate only a knot of liberal guilt in the stomachs of people who will forget about it as soon as the next endangered species is discovered.

Clinton Davis

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

Itís worth a full-price ticket.

Itís worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...


Mike Doughty



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