MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Payback’
“Payback” has a singular, expansive mission: address the concept of “debt” in all of its forms.
Through the concept of debt, the film explores and connects the many meanings of payback, which range from repayment of a loan to revenge in a blood feud.
The documentary is directed by Jennifer Baichwal and features several stories, each involving a different kind of debt. Baichwal does not search for conclusions or solutions to debt, but explores debt in all of its intricacy and variety.
Issues of environmental debt are examined through an investigation into the aftermath of BP’s oil spill in the Gulf and the story of a blood feud and longtime land dispute in Albania is particularly interesting.
Issues of legal and economic debt are looked into, displaying the incidental, arbitrary nature of the legal justice system through the significance of ‘payback’ through imprisonment.
It weaves a picture of the potentially irrational, irascible power of debt as an ordering code and a dictatorial ruler of relationships.
“Payback” is an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 2008 book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth.
“It was very intimidating to adapt a Margaret Atwood book,” Baichawal said.
A longtime fan of the author, Baichwal was inspired by her experience with Atwood’s latest non-fiction.
“At first I thought it would be just about money—a journalistic investigation of finance,” she said.
Upon reading the book, however, Baichwal realized that it presented something much more comprehensive and special.
“I read it, and it was just so beautiful and dense—it’s about the give and take we constantly engage in,” Baichwal said.
She acknowledges that Atwood’s work is not an obvious choice to adapt.
“It’s pretty dense and intellectual, and it’s my most abstract project yet,” Baichwal said.
WHAT YOU’LL THINK
“Payback” unfolds quietly and slowly; there is no single, reductive “point” to the movie. Baichwal’s film keenly skirts around all things declarative and heavy-handed.
Throughout her career, the director has received some criticism for shying away from the polemical. For Baichwal, however, this is a deliberate move.
“All of my films are kind of open ended in that they don’t advance a particular argument,” Baichwal said. “There are a lot of contextual realities that make things ambiguous, but that’s okay—just exploring and rooting around in ambiguities without coming to a hard conclusion is what I’m interested in.”
The film can be frustrating. Each of its stories could easily merit a much deeper and longer investigation. It never fully coheres.
Still, “Payback” accomplishes something. It elicits individual moments of significance and pathos. The stories and interviews are impactful, the individual voices honest and touching.
Though somewhat unsatisfying, the film’s disunity is appropriate. “Payback” undertakes something unwieldy.
Instead of urging some particular action, Baichwal encourages her audience to think about notions of debt that are too often taken for granted.
“Payback” is playing at Film Forum through Tuesday, May 8th.
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