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Payback cover image

Payback 2012


Distributed by Zeitgeist Films, 247 Centre Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-274-1989
Produced by Ravida Din
Directed by Jennifer Baichwal
DVD, color, 86 min.

Jr. High - General Adult
American Studies, Criminal Justice, Economics, Ethics, Law, Multicultural Studies, Philosophy, Social Sciences, Sociology

Date Entered: 10/11/2012

Reviewed by Jennifer Dean, MALS student, City Univerity of New York (CUNY Graduate Center)

Jennifer Baichwal in her documentary Payback explores the subject of debt and its different applications as raised in Margaret Atwood’s lecture and subsequent book Payback by finding allegories that represent the philosophies presented by Atwood. The film opens with an Albanian man confined to his home after shooting a neighbor, highlighting tribal and religious concepts of debt. Kanun code states that if he were to leave his property the man he shot could kill him - thus his debt to society for the crime committed is to either give up his life by giving up his mortal coil or simply by imprisoning himself. Payback also analyzes the BP oil spill and the cost to the environment (environmental debt), the struggle of mistreated agricultural workers (the price to be paid for cheap produce and the debt society owes to those who have been mistreated in order to provide benefits for the rest of society), and the concept of the penal system represented by institutions such as the Eastern State Penitentiary and the debt to be paid through imprisonment (telling both the story of a burglar jailed and continuing to “pay his debt to society” and a man wrongfully imprisoned).

Baichwal explores all sides of each of these stories. For instance, in the case of the agricultural debate on debt she interviews not only the workers but also the farm owner and tackles the question not only from the perspective of the debt owed by those perpetrating the crime (farms enslaving workers) but also by society at large which benefits from the relatively low cost of food produced by those injustices. She interviews scholars who clarify the issues represented allegorically. The film takes it’s time with each subject and the magnificent visuals interspersed throughout the film help to allow moments of reflection on the complex questions raised.

In her director’s notes Baichwal comments that “Margaret Atwood is an author, not a subject,” and Baichwal does well by Atwood’s material by focusing more on the book’s concepts and the documentary subjects. The least engaging elements of the film are when Atwood is seen working on or reading from her writing—or the snippets of her flatly presented lecture (which although brilliant in content aren’t so well performed). As a finish the film takes Atwood’s Scrooge allegory and has it first read by Atwood and then by the various documentary subjects; highlighting the flatness of Atwood’s delivery but also making the viewer even more grateful that Atwood’s stories have been told in other voices. The overall content of Baichwal’s film is not only brilliant but also well presented.