Life and Debt
Interview with Stephanie Black
interview by Cynthia Fuchs, 14 December 2001

Stephanie Black's new documentary, Life and Debt, explores the economic and political fallout of globalization in Jamaica. Premiering at New York's twelfth Annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival in June 2001, the documentary continues to open in selected theaters (see the schedule openings on the website, Like Black's first documentary on exploited sugar cane workers, 1990's H2 Worker, this one comes at its subject matter aggressively. It's been nearly ten years in the making: she began work on the film in 1991, inspired in part by her encounters with Jamaica during the making of the first film. For several years, she found ways to stay in Jamaica, directing Sesame Street segments and reggae music videos, in order to support and develop her larger project.

Black has experience in long hauls: she has an undergraduate degree in environmental science, pursued in part to please her parents, who worried that filmmaking was an impractical college major. From there she went to SUNY-Binghamton, where she met film teacher Ken Jacobs, whom she calls "a critical influence on my life, a mentor who spoke to my gut, my heart, and my mind." Later, at NYU Film school, she began H2 Worker, and dropped out of school when the film became the focus of her energies: "At a certain point," she recalls, "I was doing what I went to school to learn," so it was time to move on. Black's films are all about movement and passion. We began our conversation by talking about Life and Debt's structure.

Cynthia Fuchs: How are you using tourism as an organizing metaphor in Life and Debt?

Stephanie Black: It's twofold. The genesis of the film came in the 1990s, when I spent time in Jamaica. Every day in the Jamaican Gleaner, the national newspaper, there were front page stories about some payment that wasn't being released because Jamaica didn't devalue rapidly enough or privatize quickly enough, or do drug-trafficking to the satisfaction of the United States. And these stories were repeated again and again. I was in shock because I had thought the IMF was something like the Red Cross. I didn't think they were that controlling, that they would have that kind of impact on the day-to-day running of the country. So I wondered how much autonomy the country had, if the outside forces had such influence on the really important policy-making. As I began to speak to people, and as is articulated in the film, everyone knows what's going on, in all classes, and yet, I, as a decently educated American, had no idea that this was going on. And that's how the tourist came to be -- I wanted to ask why I had no idea what was happening. The tourist is a metaphor for privilege and lack of understanding. Jamaica needs to reinvent itself to meet the needs of the visitors. Consider the case of dance lessons: it could be that once, you visited a country and would go to a little bar and see people dance, and try out the new moves yourself; now, it's all contained in a little area, and spoon-fed in a soulless way.

But at the same time, [the use of the tourists] is not just a criticism; I'm not just making fun of the Americans. I identify with them. I felt that there's a certain victimization in lack of knowledge, that I myself am part of. So the tourists are a metaphor for the lack of understanding, of our own policies, imposed in our name. I spoke to Jamaicans who work in hotels about the most absurd questions they get. And there were people would come to the island and   not even know they were in a foreign country. Very often, the first question they would get is, "Where's the McDonald's?" And along with that, there's the adaptation of the Jamaica Kincaid text (A Small Place, written in 1987 about Kincaid's own home, Antigua), and she uses a very militant, passionate voice to describe a postcolonial consciousness. I was interested, now that we've all accepted that colonization is wrong, to apply her postcolonial text to a neocolonial situation, and see how accurate it remains.

CF: How do you understand the race classifications and racism that appear in the film?

SB: I've been asked, "How come there are no black tourists in the film?" But the days we filmed, we just filmed; there was no intention to shoot only white tourists. And Jamaicans comprise a range -- black, brown, white. I'm not unaware [of how the film looks], but in a documentary situation, you shoot what's there. And this situation is definitely set so that the majority of tourists are white and the developing service industry is populated by black Jamaicans. There are certain sociological, economic truths underlying that, but I wasn't taking that on in a way that I was trying to decipher. I was just trying to offer a representation of reality. For myself, I have spent a lot of time in Jamaica, and have many Jamaican friends, so I move easily there. When I first arrived, it was startling to be a minority in a black country; it was almost like being famous, because everyone was watching me. But so many years have passed and it's no longer like that. And the people in the film were very willing and even anxious to talk. They understood it as a way to speak to the American people. The farmers identify with American farmers who have also been put out of business by global agri-business, so they saw the film as a chance for dialogue. Because of that imperative, race issues were really on the backburner.

CF: You also chose not to include yourself as an interviewer in the film.

SB: That's an aesthetic and stylistic choice. I didn't include myself in H2 Worker either. That's not my style of filmmaking. If the story was about me in a more real way, then I would include myself. It doesn't interest me, that problematic, the relation of the filmmaker to the subject.

CF: What were your strategies for distilling the complicated issues of "globalization" for the lay viewer?

SB: It was hard work! I'm still exhausted from it. A lot of times during the making of it, I thought, "What have I gotten myself into? What kind of ego am I?" But what I think is brilliant about the film, personally, is the way it defies stereotypes. People don't expect the banana farmers, onion farmers, or dairy farmers to know what the policies are. And that confronts us, because in this country, we're taught to believe that it's too complicated for us to understand, and that the language that the policymakers use is a barrier -- "devaluation," "privatization." My goal was to take the viewer on the same journey I had gone on, [to show] what I learned from the people I interviewed. So I begin with the news on television, the passive watching as your country goes down the drain, and you're hit with a sense of powerlessness. Unless   t here's a revolution, the country will be like Grenada.

CF: That opening image of people watching a crisis unfold on TV is so resonant now, for U.S. viewers, though of course, it's business as usual for so many others.

SB: It is, and I'm too close to both right now, to be able to speak to the connection now. I live just nine blocks from the World Trade Center, so I'm geographically too close, and I'm too close to the film. I was using the TV as a means to show how stories repeat themselves. They just keep getting worse: more free zone factories, more dairy factories are shut down: "The IMF visits again." More McDonald's are built, so it looks more and more like Miami. So there's a passivity but also a flow of information, and no movement within the country to change any of this. Until the last riots you see in the film, the TV spots are local news; then, when the tourists are getting on the plane, the riots are broadcast by NBC News. So it's a commentary, that most of the time, when you see violence from another country, the violence is what reaches our news. But we don't know the reasons why this is happening; the causality is not "newsworthy." So I was conscious of wanting to bring the "local news" here. And of course, the TV news is a helpful tool to get information across without a narrator.

CF: The spokespeople for the IMF and World Bank tend to use language that is passive, removing them from responsibility for what's happening.

SB: Yes, because it's an economic ideology.

CF: And given the IMF's obvious wish to avoid argument, the argument the film makes -- especially in juxtaposing interviewees like [the IMF's] Stanley Fischer and [former Jamaican Prime Minister] Michael Manley -- was that designed in the editing?

SB: That imaginary conversation came in the editing but also a lot of it was pre-thought. When I made H2 Worker 10 years ago, I had a narrative structure in my mind. This film was a challenge, to film "policy" and its effects. It was hard to make that which is invisible visible, so I had to do a   lot of thinking in advance, and it took a long time to raise the money, so I was thinking all the time. I worked with a good editor, John Mullen, who also cut H2 Worker. Everything in film works in a context, and if you know the context when you're shooting it, the better you'll be able to force its meaning. We knew how things would be used. I never knew if it would work, the integration of Jamaica Kincaid, the tourists, the Rastas. It took a little time to communicate my ideas to the people I was working with, like the cinematographers. I spent a lot of time in Jamaica over the past six years, so it was a cumulative project: every conversation I had found its way in there. So it's a personal film, but it's not personal subject matter.

CF: You shoot film specifically, as opposed to video or digital video, which some filmmakers are turning to now.

SB: Video doesn't excite me. The image doesn't excite me. When I'm shooting film, the photographic image is so different, not if you're watching on television, but in theaters. For film, I don't think the technology has reached that degree yet, when you blow up video to film. That look is a different look.

CF: You worked with four different cinematographers: was that by intention?

SB: No, it was the way it worked out. Like, one cinematographer never wanted to go back to Jamaica. Another left halfway through and the Jamaican gaffer was promoted to DP. And the person I really wanted, Malik Sayeed, wasn't available until my last shoot. So there were those funny dramas that characterize any film.

CF: How did that affect your thinking about the film?

SB: It made me more isolated. For H2 Worker, I worked very closely with my cinematographer, so that every time we had to leave, we could pick up where we left off. This film was so fragmented -- like, today we're gonna film tourists, and tomorrow, we're gonna film banana farmers -- it was difficult. But Malik Sayeed, I was really lucky to work with him, even for the final week of shooting, and he filmed the women workers coming out of the "free zone" factories, in a way that made the light so striking. His sensitivity is so profound, I thank God that he was finally able to come on, because I think the film wouldn't be able to reach as broad an audience without his help. He's the most talented person I've ever worked with.

CF: The "free zone" footage does bring much of what's come before to a kind of climax.

SB: Everything that was chosen had a direct relation to policy, loans being borrowed and what they were ostensibly supposed to achieve and whom they were ostensibly supposed to aid, and then what they actually achieved and whom they actually benefited.

CF: How did you arrange for the soundtrack choices?

SB: I can tell you some exciting news, which is that we have a soundtrack cd, which will be in stores on February 5th, the day before Bob Marley's birthday. All the proceeds from the sale of the CD go to an organization called URGE (Unlimited Resources Giving Enlightenment), started by Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers and other good people. They pay salaries for teachers of homeless kids, build toilets, do environmental awareness, all good work without bureaucracy. I've directed a lot of reggae music videos, so I am indebted and grateful to the artists who allowed their music to be used. They inspire me

continually. I like to think of the film in the tradition of a Bob Marley song. I think reggae music doesn't occupy the place in American culture that I think it could, given what it says and how it says it. Someone has said to me, what's happening in Jamaica is happening everywhere -- it could have been filmed in

Thailand or Haiti, Argentina or Ghana. And I say yes, but then it wouldn't have the great reggae soundtrack.

CF: The music has such an acute politics, and then it is commercialized. SO when you hear "Day-O" now, post-Beetlejuice, or post-a dozen other contexts, it has a different resonance than it once did, or than it does in other places. Or "One Love." 

SB: Yes, and we had fun with that. We used four versions of "One Love," one after the other. I'm sick of the way it's used in commercials. For the documentary, though, the music is important. And the fact that this film has been doing so well shows that in this country, there is a market for documentary film, maybe more than is allowed theatrically. A friend of mine said to me, "Stephanie, you worked really hard, you made a good film, and the world embraced you." It doesn't necessarily happen like that. People work really hard and do good work, and the world doesn't necessarily embrace it. As he said to me, you have to realize how great that is. And I do.

Read Cynthia Fuchs' review.  Copyright 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.