By Christopher Bell | The Playlist April 27, 2012 at 3:04PM
What is the essence of debt, and what is debt that doesn't have a monetary solution? Canadian essayist, novelist, activist, and general "ist" Margaret Atwood pontificates on the complex nature of this kind of liability in "Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth," a non-fiction book and the springboard for Jennifer Baichwal's concisely titled"Payback." Atwood's deconstruction of the idea is incredibly deep, at times both frightening and amusing; Baichwal attempts to translate her lecture into a documentary/video essay and succeeds in creating something original that still retains the strength of the author's voice. The director manages to look at what various people owe to each other, from small-scale (what convicts owe to both their victims and society) to all-encompassing (how we, as humans, are beholden to our planet) debt.
Those who have seen "The Forgiveness Of Blood" (and not to digress, but if you haven't, do it) should feel deja vu in the opening where we meet two men in the midst of an Albanian blood feud. A dispute over land between Llesh Prenaga and Petrit Prenga erupted in violence, and after shooting the latter multiple times, Llesh and his family are forbidden to leave their property until the two reconcile. The countrymen take from the Kanun, an ancient book of code concerning revenge that leaves decisions of clemency to the victim, who may very well never offer pardon. This is pretty meaty substance and is probably enough to cover all of the author's ideas on the subject, but instead is used to show the concept of debt and revenge as primitive and barbaric in comparison to the many other aspects of the topic that the filmmaker shines light on.
With an occasional snippet of Atwood's reading of 'Payback,' Baichwal turns her attention to numerous other people and plights under the umbrella of debt: Conrad Black, the media mogul who was once imprisoned for diverting company funds to a personal account; Casi Callaway of Mobile Baykeeper, speaking of the disastrous BP oil spill in the gulf and its subsequently lousy clean up; the Coalition of Immokalee Workers of Florida which fights for farmworker rights and against modern slavery practices; Paul Mohammed, a convict and former drug addict in Fenbrook Institution who robbed a Holocaust survivor just to get a fix. Each have their own arc (the Immokalee the most complete, ending with a landmark deal with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange) and though it all sounds terribly messy, it's impressive how effortlessly all are juggled. It's certainly a lot to take in at first, but so is the dense nature of the subject, which makes the sprawling aesthetic work on a conceptual level. From a structural standpoint (and how refreshing it is to see such an interesting frame in a documentary) the filmmaker nails it, the connective tissue never feeling forced or jarring despite the varying situations of each speaker. The result almost feels like a documentary from Werner Herzog -- constantly turning unpredictable corners and spotlighting seemingly peculiar, inapplicable elements while still staying with the core idea.
Each focus in 'Payback' is absorbing for different reasons and serves as a nice medley -- Mohammed's moments are incredibly sincere while Callaway's is rousing given the stinging frustration concerning the spill -- though too many of them are straight-up interview sessions, lacking the life of the Immokalee section which grabs every event as it unfolds. This employment of cinema vérité also places everyone in the proper context, something the other segments with the speaking heads don't do. While a sufficient amount of background information can be gathered simply from their chatter, sometimes it's hard to keep up with and easy to miss. This problem could've been solved with a more detailed text introduction, and despite its inherent conventional nature, it'd be smooth and eliminate the risk of keeping certain audience members in the dark.
It's a minor gripe as the film mostly evades cheap metaphors or symbols, but there are some bothersome inclusions such as a ragged American flag blowing in the wind, or the clean, unifying ending in which every person reads the closing of Atwood's book. They're too small to really get up in arms about, but their place in such a smart composition seems slightly juvenile -- particularly the shot of a haggard country banner, which seems easy, loaded, potentially offensive, and substantially bankrupt at the same time.
Atwood's take on debt is meticulously brilliant; her ability to dismantle the concept and not sound pretentious (she actually does one better with her dry wit) nabs her the attentive eyes that most crooning thinkers would have trouble keeping open. It says a lot that "Payback" manages to encapsulate the essence of her musings yet doesn't purport to be or act as a replacement for the author's book -- it's instead a companion piece on a different medium, one that uses cinema's specific attributes to study other layers of the same topic. The movie concludes on its own terms: it's optimistic but still acknowledges that a change of perspective requires hard work and baby steps before anything grand will happen. In a land of empowering yet empty documentaries that tack on a useless, bossy to-do list before the end credits (get involved!), it's remarkable to actually hear some honesty. [B]