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Second-hand rose

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Shantha Bloeman's T-Shirt Travels offers the proverbial picture worth a thousand words. Best Documentary winner in the 2001 Atlanta Film & Video Festival, the film has many shots of impoverished Africans wearing second-hand Michael Bolton and Bart Simpson T-shirts, a cutting incongruity that demonstrates the gulf separating the world's haves and have-nots.

Subtitled The Story of Second-Hand Clothes and Third-World Debt, the hour-long documentary not only reveals how the cast-off garments of the U.S. and Europe have become a thriving African business, it finds in that phenomenon a clear and moving illustration of the third world's economic plight.

We literally enter the film at the retail level, as Luka, a young man in Zambia, purchases a shrink-wrapped bale of second-hand clothing to sell in a village market. With Zambia's economy in a shambles, many intelligent and enterprising workers have little recourse but to sell used American clothes, which the film asserts has helped drive the native garment industry out of business.

Forced to work to support his relatives, Luka makes a sympathetic protagonist, and T-Shirt Travels provides simple, telling moments like children playing a horseshoes-like game with dead batteries, or Luka in Adidas gear, rowing down river to trade the clothes for fish. Though one may be inclined to ask, "Hasn't Africa always been poor?" T-Shirt Travels persuasively answers, "Not like this." In the film's second half, Bloeman coherently lays out how mountainous debt and mismanagement have left Zambia and other countries with virtually no jobs, no government services and limited education and health care. T-Shirt Travels illustrates the dangers of globalization better than any of the sloganeering you hear from World Bank protesters.

T-Shirt Travels' argument is strong enough that Bloeman's fitfully first-person narration is more hectoring than it needs to be. Nothing could be more eloquent than the shot of a poor Zambian wearing a shirt that reads "I want to be like BARBIE -- The BITCH has everything!"

IMAGE Film & Video Center presents T-shirt Travels March 21 at 7:30 p.m. Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site, 450 Auburn Ave. Free.

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