This March, Spectacle presents a diptych of blistering econo-graphic deep dives by celebrated documentarian Stephanie Black. H-2 WORKER profiles migrant laborers flown from Jamaica to Florida to cut sugarcane, at the behest of big-box food manufacturers taking advantage of the extranational economy. LIFE AND DEBT, the more famous of the two, returns to Jamaica to methodically dissect Clinton-era loan policies and import/export subsidies, while pitting the island nation’s jawdropping poverty against its tourist-friendly image. Black – whose career originated in environmental activism – has clearly cultivated a unique relationship to the island nation, and yet these are anything but grass-is-greener reaffirmations of exotic stereotypes. Instead, her films show us the Caribbean we know, deep down, we’ve been seeing all along: a mirage of paradise operated by an elite few, kept for the foreign dollars of a few more.
DVDs of both H-2 Worker and Life and Debt will be available for purchase at Spectacle during this series.
dir. Stephanie Black, 1990
USA/Jamaica. 70 mins.
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 9 – 10:00 PM
TUESDAY, MARCH 15 – 7:30 PM
THURSDAY, MARCH 24 – 7:30 PM – ONE NIGHT ONLY ON 16MM FILM – Q&A with filmmaker Stephanie Black
SUNDAY, MARCH 27 – 5:00 PM
GRAND JURY PRIZE WINNER – 1990 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
Shot guerilla-style over the course of two years, H-2 WORKER is an unmissable document of pre-NAFTA neoliberalism, made at a time when over ten thousand Jamaican men per year were coming to toil in the sugarcane fields of Florida. (The filmmaker herself appears with her back to the camera, when the crew is not-so-subtly advised to cease shooting at one of the company stores where laborers can buy snacks, toothpaste, etc.) Aided by legendary cinematographer Mayrse Alberti (Creed, Crumb), H-2 WORKER captures a microcosm of indentured servitude: dimly lit dormitories, dusk-to-dawn shifts, brutal deductions in pay from both the sugar company side (and upon remittance to Jamaica.)
While the beyond-cheap labor is defended by sundry American executives as a lucky break for Jamaica’s depressed economy – the opposite of a “handout” – cane harvesters inevitably begin organizing for the purposes of work stoppage. With heartbreaking snatches from letters written by the workers to their families back home, Black’s debut exposé wears its advocating spirit on its sleeve, brazenly appealing for a change in the status quo in classic advocacy-doc style. The H-2 program was ultimately disbanded after a fifty-million-dollar class-action lawsuit, but the film’s contemporary pertinence speaks for itself: the wages offered these men are paltry to the point of destitution, but they’re working a job with no real claimants on the U.S. side. Sound familiar?
“H-2 WORKER does not pretend to offer any answers, but it solidly frames issues about the economy, employment and the treatment of workers who seem just steps away from slavery.” – Caryn James, The New York Times
LIFE AND DEBT
dir. Stephanie Black, 2001
USA/Jamaica. 80 mins.
MONDAY, MARCH 7 – 7:30 PM
TUESDAY MARCH 15 – 10:00 PM
THURSDAY, MARCH 24 – 10:00 PM
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 30 – 10:00 PM
“Every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native would like to find a way out. Every native would like a rest. Every native would like a tour. But some natives – most natives in the world – cannot go anywhere. They’re too poor to escape the realities of their lives, and they’re too poor to live properly in the place where they live – which is the very place that you, the tourist, want to go.”
Narrated by Jamaica Kincaid (reworking the second-person narration of her 1988 classic A Small Place), Black’s breakout 2001 documentary interrogates the power structures imposed by the Bretton Woods organizations on so-called “developing” economies, and the psychological chasm that separates a nation’s exported reputation from reality on the ground. LIFE AND DEBT investigates International Monetary Fund levers in agonizing detail: “structural adjustments” designed to keep Jamaica’s post-colonial government in permanent debt, brutal export subsidies on agriculture, and loopholes for American fashion companies – many of whom are directly namechecked in the film, via first-hand testimonies from textile workers, paid an infinitesimal wage by American standards.
Not unlike the reggae-intensive soundtrack (featuring tracks by Peter Tosh, Buju Banton, Sizzla and the Marleys), the film finds melancholy drenched in beauty. While it’s a tired trope to call a film’s cinematography “sumptuous”, Black and her team of cinematographers (including Malik Sayeed) use their 35mm palette to sharply play Jamaica’s endemic lushness against itself, interrogating tropical tourist desire as its own system of imaging and control. Arguably the most rigorous dissection of postcolonial economic policy ever committed to film, LIFE AND DEBT is a penetrating critique of what the “New World Order” actually means for millions, and a sober-eyed ode to a culture in embattled flux.
“In Stephanie Black’s devastating, artful, and intelligent documentary, Jamaican farmers tell of the downward spiral of one livelihood after another: Cheap American-imported powdered milk usurps the local dairy supply, Chiquita squashes Jamaican banana farmers, Idaho potatoes nudge out regionally grown crops.” – Lenora Todaro, The Village Voice
“After the structural adjustments, the cuts in public expenditure, the removal of tariffs on imports, the privatisations and devaluations, Jamaica is still plagued by financial crisis. Development plans have been abandoned as the vision of independence recedes. LIFE AND DEBT is a very powerful weapon in the arsenal of the global movement for a more equitable economic order.” – Linton Kwesi Johnson, The Guardian