Life and Debt, a documentary made in 2001 currently enjoying a limited UK cinema release, is a powerful story of the effects of globalisation. Focusing on Jamaica and filling-in the background from independence from Britain in 1962, the tale is told through interviews with the ex-prime minister, farmers, workers and bankers. Rather like a visual companion piece to Naomi Klein's best-selling non-fiction title No Logo, this story is inevitably much less detailed and wide ranging than that book, but has the advantages of putting a human face to a global, man made economic tragedy. We see how the profit-driven agendas of the World Bank, World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund and Inter-America Development Bank have systematically ruined Jamaica's economy, plunging the country into insurmountable debt simply to make already rich Western investors richer. Sequences focus on the undermining of Jamaica's milk, beef, vegetable and banana production to the benefit of American corporations, and how the country has been forced to play host to a "Free Trade Zone" where natives work for the equivalent of 30 US dollars a week for American companies which are exempt from paying taxes to the Jamaican government. This globalisation effects workers in the First World as much as the Third, taking formerly American jobs to wherever the employers can pay the lowest wages.
The downside of the film, already short at 82 minutes, is the burden of pop-video style musical sequences which slow the narrative down, and the inclusion for comparative purposes footage of a group of American tourists on their holiday. These tourists, who are no better or worse than many others, are held-up for mockery; a narration written by Jamaica Kincaid scores a terrific own-goal by insulting and patronising people who are simply enjoying themselves in a fairly harmless way and are bringing money into the Jamaican economy. Through this material the film also insults and patronises its target white western audience, who by having chosen to go and see Life and Debt, or buy and watch the video or DVD, are by implication sympathetic to its cause. Not a clever move. One comment in the narration that Jamaica was settled by "rubbish" from Europe is particularly outrageous and inflammatory.
Nevertheless, the mercifully brief bursts of narration aside, this is a worthwhile documentary, which while it seems an odd choice for a cinema release - the small scale, close-up dominated, narrow ratio (1.66-1) photography seems purpose made for domestic rather than theatrical viewing - should find its true home on TV.