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Life And Debt

     Perhaps my proudest moment at Acting Curator for the Harvard Film Archive several years ago was to help cancel out on Jack Valenti, that oily lobbyist for the film industry, who had volunteered himself to give a Harvard address. Valenti is the skunk who troubleshoots the world in the high pay of Hollywood demanding an open market for movie exhibition. No quotas, please! A typical flagwaving Valenti triumph: in post-Communist Poland, 95% of films shown are Hollywood products. In America, almost no Polish films have been distributed since the death of Kiesloswki.

     I can grasp the monstrous inequities of "free trade" when it comes to international film distribution. But what about other kinds of financial squeezes in the name of "globalization"? If you are like me, in dire need of Economics 101, emotionally on the side of those protestors in Seattle and Quebec City without quite getting what they were protesting, I've got the documentary that brilliantly explains it all, a globalization primer: Life and Debt, February 22-28 at the Brattle Theatre.

     This recent hit of the Human Rights Film Festival is the vivid horror tale of the economic invasion of, and ruination of, the Carribean island of Jamaica, with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank standing by – and secretly approving? – as Jamaica is plundered from abroad, particularily the USA.

     "Free trade" has allowed US businesses to flood Jamaica with products grown for ages by local farmers - potatoes, carrots, onions, etc.- but to offer them at such low prices that the native businesses have gone under. Life and Debt is filled with melancholy interviews with wiped-out Jamaicans standing despairingly in front of their now dried, useless farms. Meanwhile, truckloads of Idaho potatoes roll into the markets.

     The dairy industry? America has arrived with cheap powdered milk, making milk straight from the cow redundant. Making the poor cow redundant, sold cheaply for hamburger meat. Moreover, the Jamaican hamburger is also on the way out, since McDonald's and Burger King island sites bring their own chemically-loaded patties from stateside.

     You get the idea. Jamaica is being screwed. The screwing is articulated best in the movie by the marvelously charismatic Michael Manley, the populist (and left-wing) ex-prime minister. His talking-heads adversary (and the movie's de facto villain) is Stanley Fischer,smug in a tie and gray flannel suit, Deputy Director of the International Monetary Fund.

     Life and Debt has a second narrative, which occurs alongside the tale of Jamaican economic woe: the arrival and departure, and week in between of partying-by-the-pool leisure, of a typical group of vacationers from the US. Talk about fiddling while Rome burns! These tourists, sequestered from the "real" Jamaica, sqaunder their time there with moronic drinking games and show-your-pecs contests organized by their hotel's grinning, paid-to-be-coonish staff. Only once does this group take a mini-bus day trip away from their luxurious, locked-in retreat. What do these revelers make of the hollow-eyed, chronically unemployed people who stand all the day alongside Jamaican roads?

     Life and Debt gets a bit overstated, in its Eisensteinian cutting between noble black Jamaicans and pale, privileged ugly Americans. Likewise, the Jamaica Kincaid-written voice-over teeters between being poetic and gratingly self-righteous. And it's really too facile to insinuate that the murderous riots in the streets of Kingston, which end the film, are caused by globalization. Still, Life and Debt is necessary viewing, for the decline and fall of Jamaica is a microcosm of the have-not nations of the world.

(Boston Phoenix, February 2002)

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