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 EN Featured Movie Review

Life and Debt

Actors: Belinda Becker, Buju Banton, Horst Kohler, Michael Manley, Stanley Fischer
Directors: Stephanie Black
Format: color, widescreen
Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only)
Studio: NEW YORKER FILMS VIDEO
DVD Release Date: June 24, 2003
Run Time: 80 min
  • DVD Features:
    • Available Audio Tracks: English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround)
    • Commentary by: director Stephanie Black
    • Additional footage from Michael Manley's interview
    • Music video by Anthony B
    • Photo gallery
    • Soundtrack excerpts

  • Plot Summary:
    Set to a beguiling reggae beat, Life and Debt takes as its subject Jamaica's economic decline in the 20th century. The story has reverberations in the plight of other third-world nations blindsided by globalization, like Ghana and Haiti. After England granted Jamaica independence in 1962, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) stepped in with a series of loans. These loans came with strings attached--the kind that would eventually plunge the country $7 billion into debt, stranded without the resources to dig themselves out. Although IMF officials get the chance to have their say, it's clear where filmmaker Stephanie Black's sympathies lie--with the country's underemployed farmers and sweatshop workers.

    Review By Blake French
    - Television is not that bad, ah?

    Documentaries are probably the easiest kind of movie to make-no demanding actors, expensive special effects, enormous filming crews, or massive budgets. However, covering such specific topics, documentary movies are probably also the hardest kind of film to make entertaining.

    Michael Moore does it best when he injects a cunning wit into his documentaries like "The Big One" and "Roger & Me." 1999's "Barenaked in America," detailing a Canadian band, also entertained audiences while still supplying interesting information on the subject. "Life and Debt" does not do this. It contains an appropriate style, but lacks interest.

    For most of us, when we think about Jamaica, we think of a popular vacation spot. Who wouldn't enjoy it's beautiful locations, warm weather, and welcoming atmosphere. American's can even enter with a delusion of wealth since thirty Jamaican dollars equal approximately one US dollar.

    But "Life and Debt" does not exploit the location as an exotic locale, it examines how the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and other aid organizations have changed the Jamaican economy over the past several decades. The movie examines how agriculture, industry, government, and culture have been restructured by import-export systems, forcing the locals to live in poverty and work in sweatshops.

    Director Stephanie Black does not take the normal approach to such material. She injects a sarcastic style into the scenes. An effective reggae soundtrack-including songs by Bob Marley, Ziggy Marley, Mutubaruka, and Peter Tosh-seasons the film. Unfortunately, despite the filmmakers' attempts, the spices do not rid the stuffy scenes of a stale aftertaste.

    Author Jamaica Kincaid, whose book "A Small Place" inspired the film, guilds the audience on a tourist's journey through the visually stunning country. On a technical level, this is a good documentary; it makes good points about the topic. It surprises us while proving wrong our assumptions about Jamaican.

    If you are interested in this kind of thing, this is definitely the movie to watch. But if you're not particularly interested in this topic, it's difficult to care about currency, economics, banana production, the country's poverty, etc. I found myself daydreaming, looking at my watch, dozing off. For me, this was a tedious, tremendously boring experience.

    Though we can't accuse this movie of miscommunication. After watching the movie, we will all see Jamaica in a new light…that is, if we are still awake.


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