When we hear the word "Jamaica," most of us think of true-blue water and bright white beaches, of dreadlocks and ganja, of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. When Stephanie Black hears the word "Jamaica," she thinks of the IMF and the WTO, of GATT and NAFTA, of that whole one-world ideology that goes by the name "globalization." Black's documentary Life and Debt, which will be screening at the Orpheum Theatre on April 26 as part of a conference sponsored by the Madison Fair Trade Action Alliance, is the opposite of a travel brochure. Introducing us to the farmers and factory workers who bear the brunt of Jamaica's involvement with the World Bank and the New World Order, Black turns our visit to this island paradise into a close encounter of the Third World kind. Tourists, beware: The natives are (understandably) restless.
Not that you could tell. Black includes ample footage of light-skinned tourists being led around by dark-skinned tourist guides, and the former seem oblivious to the latter, who've literally been trained to grin and bear it. They also seem oblivious to the country's poverty, which is either hidden away or passed off as "Don't Worry, Be Happy" charm. For her tourism-is-just-another-form-of-colonialism critique, Black draws on A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid's poison-pen letter to anyone who might desire to visit the West Indies. Kincaid was writing about Antigua, but her polemic, which is narrated by Belinda Becker, applies equally well to Jamaica. And although Kincaid could be quite brutal, describing one tourist as "an incredibly unattractive, fat, pastrylike-fleshed woman," the rhetorical overkill seems more at home in the documentary, where we're at least allowed to look around for ourselves.
The McDonald's controversy, in which a same-named local restaurant that's been around since 1971 and serves traditional Jamaican dishes like curried goat gets sued by the giant hamburger chain, brings a Michael Moore flavor to the proceedings. But for the most part, Life and Debt is as serious as a fast-food-induced heart attack. One crop at a time, Black has Jamaican farmers explain how the International Monetary Fund's policies, which were supposed to jump-start the economy, have drained its batteries instead. Later, we visit the Free Trade Zone, which, like the Vatican, isn't subject to any outside rules or regulations. Factory workers, mostly women, make $30 a week.
Short-term loans, high interest rates, currency devaluations, removal of trade barriers, a flood of cheap imports, further currency devaluations, more loans, austerity measures, servicing of multibillion-dollar debt ' the scenario will be familiar to anyone for whom the word "Seattle" signifies not coffee but protest. Black may be preaching largely to the converted, but there's always room for another sermon when it's a matter of life and debt. (Admission to the April 26 screening is $5 to $10, depending on your ability to pay. No one will be turned away, which is more than the IMF can say.)