Life and Debt opens as a group of chubby white tourists depart an airplane and arrive in Montego Bay, Jamaica’s renowned tourist destination. The clips of the tourists, so merry and ignorant, are paired with excerpts from Kincaid’s novel. A woman utters ominous messages about the ugliness of tourism while the gluttonous visitors drink and tan to excess. These ominous messages serve as an entryway into the other side of Jamaica, the part where tourists never venture. The majority of the film shows native Jamaicans, impoverished and usually unemployed, trying to earn enough to take care of their families. There are also of interviews with former government officials, like former Prime Minister Michael Manley to help explain Jamaica’s economic situation. Black uses a host of different characters to condemn the International Monetary Fund and other major corporations that have failed to help Jamaica develop economically, although they promised to do so. To briefly surmise, Manley was forced to sign an agreement with the IMF in 1977 to help stabilize its economy after the country became independent from England. A little more than a quarter century later, Jamaica now owes the IMF, World Bank, and Inter-American Development Bank 4.5 billion dollars. This debt has managed to hurt the vast majority of natives, keeping them in poverty. Jamaica is now in an economic crisis, which has lead to corruption, illiteracy, increased violence, poorly maintained hospitals and a major disparity between the rich and poor. This theme is recurrent throughout Jamaica’s failing businesses, like chicken plants and banana farms, which cannot compete with international forces. This debt leaves the future of Jamaica dismal.
The glaring juxtaposition of wealthy white tourists and homeless natives nauseates all who watch the film. Black purposefully disgusts the audience to show them one of her themes in the film: the ugly side of tourism. These predominantly white visitors leave their homes to escape their mundane lives and to see natives in an exotic location. They enjoy watching at the “simple” natives, who live a slow, relaxed life. In reality, these natives are trapped in their homes with no economic opportunities and have no choice but do sit around all day. Tourists romanticize the country’s poverty, and enjoy watching the natives suffer. The structure of the film, cutting from multiple people’s point of views and adding excerpts from novels and advertisements, gives the audience a thorough idea of Jamaica and all of its complexities.
As a white woman viewing this film, I could feel nothing but disgust and embarrassment for the stupid caucasians in the video. I wanted to personally apologize to all the Jamaicans who have been hurt by the United States, and who have been excluded from globalization and therefore are disposed to large rates of unemployment and poverty. This pit in my stomach comprised of nausea and frustration made me realize the director had executed her documentary perfectly. Stephanie Black strayed from a Western eye and her white privilege, which enables her to capture the unfair world economy, and make white viewers finally acknowledge their all-pervading privilege.