Living on Bananas

"Come Mr. Tally Mon, tally me banana...." As I watched Life and Debt, a new documentary about the effects of international economic policies on Jamaica, the words of Harry Belafonte's classic "The Banana Boat Song" went through my head as the music played during the segment about Jamaica's beleaguered banana industry. It seemed cliché to use the song during that segment, and I braced myself when I heard the first notes begin.

But now I listened to the words, and they made sense for the first time. The lyrics struck me with their poignancy, and I realized that Belafonte's song was one of protest. I had never really heard them before, and rather than adding a trite touch to the film, the song revealed, through the understated display of the lyrics, one of the ways in which people of privilege have chosen to ignore the reality of Caribbean poverty.

Life and Debt, produced and directed by Stephanie Black, is a powerful indictment of the economic policies of the international financial institutions. The almost-90-minute film, which premiered at the 2001 Human Rights Watch Film Festival, focuses on the tragic inability of the island nation—granted independence in 1962 from Great Britain, but remaining within the commonwealth—to maintain a functional economy for its people.

In 1999-2000, according to Jubilee USA, the Jamaican government estimated that 66 percent of its revenue was being used for debt service. To raise more money, the government suggested increasing fuel taxes, which led to riots in the streets. The fuel tax option was withdrawn, and the country continues to deal with severe debt problems.

THE FILM BEGINS with what seems to be a pseudo-newscast about civil unrest on the island following announcements of further draconian economic measures. Exhausted faces fill the screen, faces of people who have endured generations of pain. Filmmaker Black described in an interview with New York's Independent Media Center (IMC) that she prefers working with film rather than videotape, and the difference is clear: Her film is lush and deep, and it skillfully conveys the colors and emotions of Jamaica.

The film quickly moves to scenes of real North American tourists arriving at the airport near Montego Bay. This is a powerful theme in the film—contrasting the easy, luxurious vacations of the primarily white, well-fed visitors with the lives of Jamaica's people. Black returns to shots of the vacationers again and again and uses the confrontational words of writer Jamaica Kincaid's 1988 book A Small Place as narrative (read by Belinda Becker). Kincaid wrote the book about her native island of Antigua, using the text to express her anger at the ignorance and indifference of wealthy tourists. Black realized that much of the story could apply to Jamaica and, with Kincaid's approval and eventual assistance, she rewrote pieces of the book to use in Life and Debt.

The film moves through the various industries of Jamaica—onion farming, dairy, poultry, meat, clothing manufacturing, bananas—and explains how World Bank and IMF policies have gutted each one. Black interviews farmers who describe how they can no longer sell their goods since, due to World Bank strategies, the markets have opened and the United States and other countries have brought in the same items for significantly lower prices. The Jamaican dairy industry, once very strong, lost a huge chunk of its market in 1992 when import taxes (along with subsidies to local farmers) were eliminated. When powdered milk from the United States started arriving free from taxes, and Jamaican dairy farmers lost their subsidies, not only were thousands of gallons of milk lost, but 700 cows had to be slaughtered.

Over and over, it's the same story. Black shows clearly that average Jamaicans know what's going on—they are affected every day by IMF policies and can speak with authority about the damaging results. One of the most wrenching interviews, segments of which are used throughout the film, is with Michael Manley, the former prime minister of Jamaica who was elected in 1976 on a "no-IMF" platform. Manley explains the country's futile attempts to remain financially independent and his eventual realization that there was no choice but to sign the loan agreement with the World Bank and the IMF. Toward the end of the film, in a heartbreaking voice, he says that the day he signed the papers with the institutions was the most dreadful of his public career.

Black also speaks with Stanley Fischer, deputy director of the IMF, who explains the institution's "restructuring" policies and argues for the IMF policy of devaluing the currency of emerging nations. Fischer was actually quite nice to her during the interview, Black told the Independent Media Center, but she said he doesn't seem to realize the outrageous expectations placed on Jamaica by the international financial institutions.

The film's soundtrack of reggae tunes and other Caribbean music is a bonus. And not only does Black interview farmers, factory workers, a former prime minister, and an IMF deputy director, but she also uses a panel of Rastafarians as a Greek chorus, sitting in a circle around a fire, discussing the pain of their island.

For those who are already well versed in the debt crisis, Life and Debt will not teach many new things, other than specific facts about Jamaica. For those just learning, it is a marvelous tool to explain just how indebtedness grows and feeds itself. Most of the financial details are explained in a way that older teen-agers or college students can grasp. It is an intense film, well made, and not easily forgotten.

Judy Coode is communications manager for the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns in Washington, D.C.

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"Living on Bananas"
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