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Dossier: Trade Secrets

Stephanie Black's film Life and Debt challenges a political position that many CEOs support.
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Dossier

Who: Stephanie Black, director of the documentary film Life and Debt.

What: In her documentary about the Jamaican economy, Black attempts to make the free-trade debate less abstruse.

No doubt where she stands: The filmmaker argues that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are puppets used by ruthless multinational corporations to suppress entrepreneurship in the developing world. Although the film's strong point of view angers free-trade advocates, Life and Debt has become a cult hit.

Yes, we have no bananas: Among the small businesses in sorry shape because of Jamaica's trade policy are the island's banana farms. At the behest of Dole, Del Monte, and Chiquita, the United States and four Latin American countries forced the European Union to drop the special tariff status it afforded small growers. Black says that hundreds of farms have failed since the 1997 policy change, but none of the farmers she interviewed have been able to break into the U.S. market.

Our loss: "You eat a Jamaican banana and you go, 'Oh, this is what God meant it to taste like," Black says.

Got (too much) milk: The country's dairies are also failing, as imported powdered milk floods the Jamaican market at cheap prices.

Big Mac attack: Perhaps the most laughable example of corporate predation documented in Black's film was the arrival of McDonald's in Jamaica in 1995. The company sued a Kingston restaurant, called McDonald's, to force it to change its name. McDonald's argued that the Jamaican McDonald's, a purveyor of curried goat and jerk chicken, would be confused with the fast-food chain.

Supersize this: The Jamaicans countersued, and a court ordered the U.S. chain to operate under the name Golden Arches for five months.

Local news: When Black lived in Jamaica, a decade ago, she found that the IMF was covered in Jamaican media as obsessively as the stock market is covered here. "I was amazed at how much everyone who's living in the country knew about the IMF and the World Bank, and yet I myself, an educated American, had no knowledge at all," she says.

Do-it-yourself distribution: Rejected by 12 distributors, Black persuaded a theater to show Life and Debt for one week. It ran for four months, and New Yorker Films picked it up for national release.

Island love: Some reviewers have written that after seeing Life and Debt, you'll never want to go to Jamaica again. "Every time I read that, I cringe," Black says. "Jamaica is the most magnificent place that I've been to on earth. Everyone should go to Jamaica." Except maybe Ronald McDonald.


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Last updated: Aug 1, 2002




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