What it means to pay back a debt to society
Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary “Payback” begins with the sound of fingers typing on a computer keyboard. They presumably belong to the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, who will appear throughout the film. This makes sense, as the documentary is based on her 2008 Massey Lectures for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and subsequent book, “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth.” Just in time for the world financial crisis, Atwood pondered the concept of paying back a debt, not just in economic terms but also moral and social. Debt’s a seemingly straightforward concept, yet the more one thinks about it the more complex it becomes. As Atwood says, “How we think about [debt] changes how it works.”
Film has no rival for showing us things and people. Ideas are another matter. Abstraction lends itself to depiction in motion pictures about as well as it does in ballet — and at least ballet has toe shoes and tutus. So there’s a splendid audacity in Baichwal trying to bring to the screen something as idea-driven as Atwood’s book.
Baichwal’s previous film, “Act of God,” was about people who’d been struck by lightning. The one before that was “Manufactured Landscapes,” about the photographer Edward Burtynsky's documenting of industrial destruction of the environment in China and elsewhere. Clearly, she’s not afraid of unusual or morally charged material. “Payback” is both.
To present a concept as large and complex as moral and social debt Baichwal cuts back and forth among a number of stories and speakers. The most interesting story is that of an Albanian, Llesh Prenaga, who’s spent years effectively imprisoned with his family on their farm because of a blood feud. He moved the fence dividing his property from his neighbor’s. When the neighbor protested, Prenaga shot him. It’s now understood, under the Albanian tradition of the Kanun, that should Prenaga go off his property the neighbor and the neighbor’s family have the right to kill him.
Baichwal also looks at more familiar stories: the exploitation of farm workers in Florida; the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (a very different kind of corporate debt from that written about on the business pages). We hear from two highly dissimilar felons: the Canadian media mogul Conrad Black and Paul Mohammed, a drug addict currently serving a term for breaking into the home of an elderly Holocaust victim. Mohammed’s sense of shame over his actions ranks with the dignity of the farm workers as the most moving things in the documentary.
Interspersed with these stories, we hear Atwood give a public reading from the book and see her pecking away at her computer or, pen in hand, revising a text. Also heard from are several talking heads, among them comparative religion scholar Karen Armstrong, left-wing activist Raj Patel, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, and ecologist William Rees. Rees raises the idea of a humanity-wide debt, suggesting that “Humans have become a rogue species.”
Rees offers that comment while seated in a kayak. Like several other attempts to make “Payback” more visual, it’s not all that helpful. When Atwood has a metaphorical reference in her lecture to a pawn shop, Baichwal cuts to a shot of a pawnbroker’s sign. The price of audacity can be reductiveness — or, worse, muddle. In an attempt to knit together the film’s various strands, Baichwal has her various talking heads read in turn a passage from Atwood’s book. It’s a neat concluding device (and it’s beguiling to contemplate the negotiations involved in getting Conrad Black to read Margaret Atwood’s political prose, let alone read it on camera). But conclusion is not the same thing as resolution. Not that these matters can be resolved, of course, but they could be clarified better and addressed with more rigor. Debt is bad, we can all agree, as is its conceptual cousin, greed. It would have been intellectually bracing, though, to have a Gordon Gekko equivalent on hand to argue otherwise.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.