Life and Debt and Stephanie Black

by Thomas Beller

09/26/2001

E 12th St & 2nd Ave, New York, NY 10003

Neighborhood: All Over, Manhattan

Stephanie Black does not want to talk about the September 11th World Trade Center attack in the context of her movie, “Life and Debt.”

“I’m still processing it, like everyone else,” she said on the phone the other day, speaking from her apartment in downtown Manhattan.

But her film, which is currently playing at the Cinema Village (12th Street and Second Ave, Manhattan,tel: 212-924-3363), provides an incredible service in the context of recent events, because it allows for a sense of perspective on the activities of American capital without making an evil icon of “American Capital,” and, by extension, Americans. For some reason it was one of the only things which, in the last few weeks, penetrated the general numbness and psychic intertia I’ve been feeling, a kind of delicious escapist entertainment which is also utterly real and relevant to current events.

Like all good documentaries, it is driven by the individuals who compose it, the most compelling of whom are Jamaican farmers.

“They saw the film as an opportunity to create a bridge, to have a discourse with the American people,” she said.

It is this subtext which made the film such a moving experience; the abstract idea that governments are not necessarily representative of the people they govern comes through powerfully and personally, and this is, for some reason, an incredibly welcome feeling. These people are angry but they, and the movie, transmute their anger into language, rather compelling and moving language, and this is a time when one’s faith in language is sorely tested. So it’s as heartening as it is upsetting.

And then there is the odd sense of shame at seeing how articulate and knowledgeable these farmers are about economic policies that emanate from our own country, but which most of us comprehend only vaguely. And then, just when you are about to start thinking of them as noble, along comes the furiously laconic Caribbean voice of Jamaica Kincaid informing you that such an impulse is a kind of colonial romance. Still, the farmers got me all choked up, and person beside me had tears streaming down her face for a good part of the movie.

Stephanie Black is white (I learned on the lifeanddebt.org website), speaks with a strong Queens accent (she grew up there and attended Jamaica High school, as it happens), and has had a political conscience since she was a little kid.

“From the time I was in fourth grade I was organizing my classmates to get MIA and POW bracelets. I don’t know how that happened. My parents are not particularly politically active in any way.”

She went to college at SUNY Binghamton and studied environmental science and film making, and then to NYU film school, where she won a $10,000 dollar grant to make a documentary film about hunger in America. In the course of her research she met a Haitian minister who informed her that 10,000 workers were imported into Florida every year from the Caribbean to cut sugar cane by hand. This lead to her first film, “H2 Worker.”

Her professional activities include making music videos for reggae acts, among other things.

While working on H2 Worker, “I fell in love with Jamaica, as many people do,” she said. “I decided to move down there for a while. I got a job at a local video production company, for about 75 dollars a week. By this time I had won a first prize at Sundance and first prize at Cannes in 1990.”

I asked if she felt odd being so far away from new York and the center of things.

“For myself as a documentary film maker, the idea of being at the center of things is only interesting if I’m making a film about the center of things. New York is important to me because that is where the lab is, the editing, and this is my home. But there was something unexplainable, at that time, that made me move to Jamaica. It is a place that makes you feel like your soul comes to surface.”

At the time, in the early nineties, “I didn’t understand what the IMF was. I thought it was something like the Red Cross. But being in Jamaica, reading the newspapers every day, speaking to people, I realized everyone had clear idea of what a structural adjustment policy is, and I didn’t. The American public doesn’t have a clear understanding of these policies, because we don’t live under them.”

“Life and Debt” manages to transmit to its viewers that same startling epiphany without any piousness or reprimand. (Actually, there is a lot of footage of fat American tourists, a kind of reprimand, and Jamaica Kincaid has a brilliant riff on how everyone seeks to escape their banal reality, finding refuge in someone else’s banal reality, but only some of us have this perogative, and this, too, especially delivered in that furious, mocking, practically murderous tone of Jamaica Kincaid, might qualify as a reprimand, so maybe it’s better to say that to film never stoops to scolding.)

In our conversations Black kept veering away from adopting a polemical tone or aligning herself with groups such as the ones who have been vocally protesting globalization in Seattle, Genoa, and elsewhere.

“I’m an individual with a brain on my head. I’m not part of a larger…” Then she cuts herself off and resumes, “You know, a lot of the organizations are loving the film and helping get the word out and I’m very grateful about that. While I was making the film I wasn’t involved in any anti-globalization efforts. I respect the movement incredibly. When I started the film, it was the early nineties, and there wasn’t this awareness.”

“The goal of the film…” she would begin, cut herself off, and then start over with: “We’re American, we don’t understand what the IMF does. The goal of the film was to create information, put it out there, and to catalyze a discourse and public discourse. The news doesn’t cover the protests in terms of what they are protesting. The always focus on the confrontation. They always represent the protesters as some anarchists at a Woodstock type festival.

“I’m in love with the craftsmanship of film making,” she said. “I want to be a good film maker and to respond to what I feel inside. Personal documentaries are usually considered something that is about a family member, something very personal. But the form this film took was the way that I could express my own internal rage and frustration about this kind of inequitable system that we have. So for me, the subject is close to home. I think about it often, economic inequity is on my mind the way a family member is on my mind.”

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