Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

Owe unto others as you would want them to owe unto you

By Nora Lee Mandel

Written and Directed by Jennifer Baichwal, based on the book by Margaret Atwood
Produced by Ravida Din
Released by Zeitgeist Films
Canada. 86 min. Not rated
In English, Spanish, and Albanian with English subtitles

Payback brings to life serious discussions of philosophical issues through impassioned case studies. Canadian author Margaret Atwood is seen first writing, then touring her 2008 lecture series that was then published as a collection of essays in Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. She was inspired to think about many aspects of the concept of debt by the global financial crisis, but this adaptation is much less about red ink on balance sheets and much more about economic externalities, those costs and benefits that fall off the books and into society’s wider lap -- on justice, on workers, and on the environment.

Interviews deep into the mists of northern Albania, what Robert Carver aptly described as The Accursed Mountains: Journeys in Albaniaby in his vivid 1999, out-of-print account, illustrate the continuing power of primal blood feuds between clans who accept medieval definitions of revengeful justice as living debts (and were only barely fictionalized in Joshua Marston’s recent The Forgiveness Of Blood (Falja E Gjakut) (with notes) that bind alleged perpetrators into years of virtual house arrest for whole families). A tour of the decrepit Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia explains the 19th century view of paying one’s debt to society through penitence and rehabilitation. But how that plays out in two levels of contemporary criminal justice is contrasted between interviews with smarmy, unrepentant media mogul Conrad Black when he was out on appeal, in a luxurious room, before serving time for fraud and guilt-ridden convict Paul Mohammed who regrets violently robbing for a fix when he was an addict.

While director Jennifer Baichwal memorably looked at photographs of the impact of very large-scale industrialization on third-world workers in Manufactured Landscapes, she films an exhibit showing that conditions for farm workers in the United States are as bad as in an old Woody Guthrie song, even constituting slavery. But as Eric Schlosser (writer of Fast Food Nation) testifies to Congress that consumers would be willing to pay more for food picked by those who get a safe and living wage (what the documentary sees as the buyers’ unpaid debt), Pacific Tomato Growers is seen successfully negotiating with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida to abide by “Fair Food” guidelines for a decent work environment.

Payback is far less optimistic about damage to the natural environment, at least as exemplified by how BP has handled the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico since 2010. Unfortunately, the familiar images of oil-coated flora, fauna, and ocean, as well as interviews with critical local environmentalists, add little to other coverage in a still-evolving morass of identifying legal and administrative responsibilities and regulations for future drilling. [Note: Margaret Brown went on to detail the natural and economic impacts in the excellent 2014 documentary The Great Invisible.]

Atwood’s sardonically informative forays through the history of debt and financial responsibility are replaced by more pedantic experts, including religious historian Karen Armstrong and development economist Raj Patel. Unfortunately, the documentary works too hard for an upbeat ending. Atwood’s way too fanciful conclusion of imagining a reformed Scrooge describing the future he would prescribe for the world once he’s learned his lesson is read in turn by all the interviewees as an exuberant peroration. Fortunately, the striking images around the world remain to help us see debt beyond the narrow terms of international bankers.

May 7, 2012

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of many of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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