Despite sounding like one of those one-word-title action flicks (in fact it was, a dozen years ago), the new Payback is a thoughtful and provocative documentary. It also has an impressive pedigree, having started out as a series of Massey Lectures by Margaret Atwood that became the book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth that then became the inspiration for acclaimed documentary filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal (Manufactured Landscapes).
The subject of Atwood’s lectures was “debt” in all its forms; early in the film she says that doing the lectures was an opportunity for her to explore a topic that she didn’t really understand. The starting point was “debt as an intellectual construct,” and her inquiries were wide-ranging to the point of digressive. Baichwal happily takes up the challenge and introduces us first to a Hatfield-versus-McCoy feud in Albania that, according to their laws, amounts to a lethal blood debt. The second related theme involves a criminal’s debt to society: the camera pans over the scabby walls and cramped cells of America’s first penitentiary, then begins an interview with celebrity convict Conrad Black, who pontificates with surprising compassion about the mostly-abandoned constituency of prison inmates and the failings of the criminal justice system.
The enquiry expands further when we meet a remorseful criminal who is in jail for breaking into a woman’s house to steal stuff to support a drug habit that started when he was a teenager growing up on the streets. Then it’s off to the tomato-growing fields of Florida where some recent court cases have revealed that many indentured farm labourers from Mexico are brutalized like slaves — this called a form of political debt. The final category involves the eco-exploitation that modern capitalist society perpetrates with an ever-more-ravenous appetite. Whether it’s the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or our rabid over-consumption of natural resources, the simple but compelling metaphor is that we owe a debt to the Earth we may not be able to repay.
Despite the often loosey-goosey nature of this wide-ranging inquiry, the journey Baichwal takes us on is fascinating — and sometimes unexpectedly inter-related. The comments about how being isolated in prison was originally supposed to make a criminal “penitent” find a cruder contemporary echo in Albania, where a man who wounded a neighbour has to stay permanently on his property or else can be killed by the offended party. And the image of someone eating a tomato a thousand miles beyond the sight of the human degradation that brought it to market at a “cheap” price is suddenly parallel to a hapless pelican covered in shit-brown oil. Whether we are having a tasty salad at the expense of cruelly exploited labour or fill up a car with tainted gas, we all carry a large burden of unacknowledged debt.
The extended Albanian footage adds up to less than the sum of its parts, while some of the bold environmental claims are not supported by any form of proof or argument. But the divergent narrative strands are woven together quite wonderfully at the climax of the film. And despite the oft-bleak content, Debt contains a surprising amount of optimism. Fans of serious cinema will want to see this one. M
Directed by Jennifer Baichwal
Starring Margaret Atwood
86 minutes, runs at UVic’s Cinecenta
Sun., March 25 to Sat., March 31
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