Payback featured image

Reviewed by Marc Glassman


Jennifer Baichwal, director based on the book and Massey Lecture series by Margaret Atwood

Featuring: Margaret Atwood, Conrad Black, Albanian Llesh Prenaga and his family, Petrit and his family, economist Raj Patel, religious writer and thinker Karen Armstrong, International Crisis Group CEO Louise Arbour, ecologist and academic William Rees

The buzz
The NFB outbid independent producers to get the rights to Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed Massey Lecture series—and then got award-winning essayist documentarian Baichwal (Manufactured Landscapes, Let It Come Down) to direct it. Needless to say, expectations were high in Canadian cultural circles.

The genres
Literary adaptation; social issue doc; essay film

The premise
“I started thinking about debt for a number of reasons, but among them was my puzzlement over a turn of phrase, ‘He’s paid his debt to society.” What happens when people don’t pay their debts, or can’t pay their debts, or won’t pay their debts? What if the debt by its very nature can’t be repaid with money’?”—Margaret Atwood, reading from her book Payback in the new Baichwal film.

Psychological, historical, ethical, anecdotal, literarily critical, Payback is many things to Atwood and Baichwal. It’s a standoff in rural Albania, where Llesh Prenaga’s family are living in the equivalent of house arrest, knowing that if they leave their home, Petrit can kill them and everyone will accept it as a debt repaid—because Llesh had shot at him first. It’s Conrad Black ruminating about the justice of his stay in prison and whether he truly owed a debt to society. It’s Karen Armstrong considering the religious implication of owing a debt. It’s William Rees wondering whether we have a debt to the land—to treat it well. It’s Latin American tomato pickers in the U.S. who feel that they deserve a better wage—that society has a debt to them for their good work. It’s Atwood wondering why we all hate Dickens’ Scrooge and concluding it’s because “he’s a rich old miser…Money is like blood in that it has to circulate or it’s meaningless.”

The performances
How do you rank performances in a documentary? You can’t. However, it’s fair to say that Atwood is stellar as an occasional narrator, eccentrically reading from her text. And that Conrad Black is surprisingly effective as a slightly vulnerable older man.

The direction
Baichwal is a great essayist. Arguably, she’s Canada’s finest documentarian. This film features her strengths: the ability to string together a series of disparate elements and make them cohere; the eye for detail that make the hills of Albania or a political rally in a small town in America come alive; the intellectual vivacity to engage in complex aesthetic and ethical issues and make them fascinating.

The skinny
Despite my admiration of Atwood and Baichwal, there’s a problem with this film: with Europe’s debt crisis reaching epic proportions and the U.S. fighting an on-going recession, isn’t Atwood fiddling while Rome burns? And isn’t Baichwal complicit in the situation?

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