Paramount // 1999 // 101 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Sean Fitzgibbons (Retired) // August 7th, 1999
Some debts can't be paid with money.
What is debt? The question may sound obvious, given the financial crash and the fact that essentially every single person, at least in the US, owes money to a multitude of creditors. It goes much deeper than that, though, which legendary author Margaret Atwood describes in her non-fiction book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, culled from a series of lectures she gave in 2008. In it, she shows just how wide the concept can be, and coming from many disparate angles, like language, religion, and justice, she reveals just how wide the concept of debt becomes.
Documentarian Jennifer Baichwal (Manufactured Landscapes) takes this concept and, in her own unique way, adapted these lectures into Payback, an interesting if not altogether successful film that tells four real life stories, none of which exist in the original work, that shed light on Atwood's brad concept of debt. An Albania blood feud; the plight of Florida tomato farm workers; the BP oil spill; and the penal system, explored through convicted Canadian publisher Conrad Black and a career small time crook. There doesn't appear, at first, to be much connection between the stories but, taken together, they cleanly show that at the center of all of them is the concept of owing somebody or something.
In her short essay in the accompanying booklet, Baichwal begins, "I feel like I am trying to do two things in varying degrees: (1) Intelligently translate one medium into another and (2) Explore a question or problem that does not have an easy answer." There is no doubt, in all of her films, she accomplishes this task, but she rarely spells out the details. Like Act of God, which I loved but does feel a bit obtuse, there isn't an overriding narrative to tie things together. That may work for the lectures and the book, where each subject can exist separately, but a film needs something to bind it together and Payback has nothing like that.
Instead, and it's not a bad thing necessarily, the stories are woven together fairly loosely, and I think a portion of viewers will push against it. Baichwal delivers, as she understands and intends, no simple answer to the problem and we're left with impressions of four extremely interesting stories, none of which are given enough time to really tell their tales. It's good exposure, but not deep enough on any level; to really understand the problem that Baichwal describes, it becomes imperative to read Atwood's work, and while it's well made and interesting, the film ultimately fails because of it.
Zeitgeist Films delivers a typically good, if sparse, DVD release for Payback. The anamorphic image looks great, at least for a documentary, with nice clarity and strong colors. The interview footage is essentially perfect and the outdoor, more expansive, scenes are consistent, if not quite as solid. The two sound mixes are basically identical, with little separation between channels. The dialog is quite clear, though, and a hugely dynamic soundscape is unnecessary for a documentary, so I'm not complaining. For extras, we have an extended Q&A session with Baichwal and Atwood, which gets into more specific details, and a few deleted scenes, all of which add a little, but might have muddled the finished film.
Payback may not have the power of some of her earlier documentaries, but Baichwal delivers an astute and informative look at one of the defining aspects of our time. Because it doesn't offer an answer, though, there will be those who push against it, but for those willing to make the connections, there is a lot of food for thought in the film.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer