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Payback: A film's courageous attempt to wrestle with debt

Conrad Black (centre) with Jennifer Baichwal (right) and Nicholas de Pencier (left) during the shooting of "Payback"

Jeffery A. Salter

3 out of 4 stars


Payback is nothing if not brave. It's a documentary attempt to give concrete shape to an abstract discussion, using the medium of film to transplant a nuanced thesis – on the concept of debt – from its natural home on the printed page.

There are two ways of doing this, and, to her credit, director Jennifer Baichwal has resisted the easy one – simply to recruit a bunch of talking heads to paraphrase the argument.

Instead, she chooses to dramatize the argument with specific cases, looking to add the visual and emotional elements that are the camera's strength. Inevitably, perhaps, what gets lost in translation is the nuance, and the argument's developing thread. So we watch this with mixed feelings, glad to be briefly free from the Lohans and the Kardashians to share in an elevated debate, yet not always sure of where the ideas are heading or how they cohere.

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Appropriately, the opening frame unfolds over a persistent clacking noise, whose source is the film's inspiration. The clacking is Margaret Atwood at the keyboard, where she composed the Massey Lectures that became her book – Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth.

The essays are a meditation on debt in its multiple guises, from the individual to the state, from criminal to societal to spiritual. Since debts can be repaid, forgiven, ignored or insurmountable, Atwood's useful insight is that the very language of this issue gives rise to other equally large issues, such as vengeance and penitence and justice and hope and despair.

To pursue these big ideas, Baichwal focuses on several case studies that recur throughout: an Albanian "blood feud" between neighbours embroiled in a land dispute; the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; the maltreated and enslaved workers on Florida tomato farms; a drug addict jailed for burglarizing the home of an elderly woman. Oh, and Conrad Black, but more about him later.

All these examples spin their different variations on the theme. Rooted in an ancient code, the blood feud is a lingering stalemate that awaits its eye-for-an-eye verdict, and that sees the debtor isolated and ostracized. The jailed burglar speaks convincingly of shame, but his remorse must be weighed against the continuing impact on his shattered victim.

Those farm workers are being exploited no more by greedy capitalists than by hungry consumers – what is our moral debt when we eat a tomato salad? And the oil spill is an instance of a debt that defies repayment – the damage to the Gulf's ecology, like the wound to that elderly woman's psyche, is irremediable.

Atwood, along with such minds as Louise Arbour and Raj Patel, appears intermittently to expand the argument. So does Conrad Black, who eschews any personal comment on crime to address the issue of punishment, the incarcerated legions "of the walking dead."

Initially, he's not talking but reading from his own written work, just as Atwood does from hers, and their similarity in style is intriguing. They both recite their prose with the same enviable self-delight, tendering each syllable like a gift from the muse. Some gifts are more welcome than others.

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Unfortunately, as the setting bounces from Albania to Florida to Canada and back again, the narrative thread tends to get knotted. And those knots, although often fascinating in detail, choke off the emergence of a fuller argument and the bigger picture.

Still, typical in a Baichwal film, the compensating visuals are exquisite. As in her Manufactured Landscapes, there's an appalling beauty to the images here, with Nicholas de Pencier's lens capturing the linked tragedies of man despoiling nature and nature entrapping man – the spilled oil blackening the blue Gulf like a vast bruise; the rows upon rows of tomato vines imprisoning their stooped and sweating pickers.

So, in its adopted home on the screen, the discussion acquires a new power in the imagery while sacrificing some of its overall clarity. Weighing the balance, we owe Jennifer Baichwal a debt, but not too large – the price of admission should cover it nicely.


  • Directed by Jennifer Baichwal
  • Starring Margaret Atwood and Conrad Black
  • Classification: PG
  • 3 stars

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About the Author
Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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