Payback Review

Margaret Atwood’s non-fiction work on debt in its various forms is turned into an intriguing documentary film

The central theme behind Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary Payback is a fascinating one. Using Margaret Atwood’s book of the same name, it explores the concept of debt as it relates to many facets of society. The monetary forms of debt most of us probably associate with the term are largely left behind in favor of things like revenge and social and ethical obligations. When an Albanian man shoots his neighbor over a land dispute, he and his family are forced into an indefinite exile or else his now-recovered victim can, under a 300-year-old set of laws, kill him on sight. Like many of the subjects shown in the film, the shooter’s debt is virtually unpayable, yet it haunts most everyone involved. On some level it’s understandable to want the movie to offer answers or explanations to the problems it shows but the reality is that it simply can’t.

Atwood, who’s balanced novels like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin with non-fiction works throughout her distinguished literary career, is seen as a driving force in the documentary. Without any narration, the philosophical emphasis rests with Atwood’s words, delivered in a lecture, to expand on some of the themes which play out in the picture. It can become all a bit unfocused or sprawling, with multiple stories like that of the Albanians and three or four others being used to illustrate the wide-ranging central topic. Each one of the pieces making up the whole is engaging in its own right, to the point where it sometimes becomes frustrating to leave, for example, the struggling migrant workers in Florida who are picking tomatoes under conditions labeled as modern slavery.

Ideally, there would be a better, more fluid way of connecting all of these dots than the rather patchwork way the film opts to present them. The resulting effect might therefore suffer a little, but Payback is nonetheless an exceptionally well-made and engaging look at an often neglected topic. If debt, such as the kind explored via the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, can involve and somehow still transcend gross amounts of money then it seems entirely reasonable to question the true worth or value of currency. The subtle implications seen in Payback allow for the viewer to wonder whether money has gradually ruined civilization. On some very potent level, the ideas and concepts found in this film manage to contradict many of the established strengths of capitalism. The documentary certainly offers no indication that it’s a proponent of such a system, instead espousing ideas which seem more in line with liberal socialist tenets.

Payback openly suggests that the prison system is not only confused in its rationale, torn between justifications of rehabilitation and punishment, but also more or less undone by recidivism and the struggle to acclimate upon release. These ideas, while hardly new, remain entirely salient. The film becomes interested in prison because of the idea of one having to pay a debt to society for his crimes. Whether such a reality ever exists, or even if it could exist, seems left unanswered. Instead we’re given a man who broke into an elderly Holocaust survivor’s home in order to steal jewelry which he then sold for money to buy crack. The implications of debt get a little muddled here, I think, but we’re still left with this image of a man full of remorse who nonetheless offers no assurances that he’s been or could be completely rehabilitated. His “debt” persists indefinitely, and his victim finds herself unable to ever again feel safe in her own home

As a film, Payback stumbles slightly by biting off more than it can chew. Imprisoned media magnate Conrad Black offers timely analysis of the subject at hand in his interview but it questionably fits in with the larger picture. It’s not that anything feels like it needs to be excised, only that the pieces might be better suited to a larger canvas arranged somewhat differently. The film is beautifully made and makes for an easy watch and recommendation. Still, the nagging concern over what it all means and how we could possibly improve on anything just witnessed lingers just as strongly as the swarm of ideological goodwill which might ensue.

The Disc

Payback comes to R1 DVD courtesy of Zeitgeist Films, a small label not yet in the Blu-ray game but one which nonetheless offers up consistently strong releases of worthwhile titles. The dual-layered disc comes inside a clear plastic amaray case that also contains a short insert booklet

Image quality is consistently impressive. Shot digitally in HD, the film is presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen televisions. Colors and skin tones register well in this progressive transfer. There are no indications of excessive digital fiddling or manipulation. Damage is a non-issue. This is really a quite sparkling example of standard definition.

Two audio options exist in the form of both a Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a two-channel stereo offering. The differences are not necessarily dramatic, but the surround mix does predictably offer a more aurally immersive experience by way of the film’s distinctive and appropriate score. Dialogue registers clearly and without incident. The primary spoken language is English but both Spanish and Albanian figure prominently in the movie. These are subtitled as necessary. Additionally, optional English subtitles are offered for the hearing impaired. They are white in color.

Extra features are highlighted by an opening night Q&A (17:31) at Film Forum in New York City. Director Jennifer Baichwal and Margaret  Atwood both participate in the question and answer session. While not quite falling into the essential category, this supplement nonetheless provides some key looks at the central dynamic of the making of the film.

Also included is a selection of three additional scenes. “The Musings of Margaret” (12:46) allows Atwood to go into detail on more of her thoughts while “Jane Goodall in the Garden” (7:01) offers contribution from the renowned anthropologist (who doesn’t appear in the final cut of the film). A third scene, called “The Fairness Experiment” (7:02), which didn’t make it into the picture is here as well.

The film’s theatrical trailer (1:46) completes the bonus material on the disc while a short booklet with a statement by director Jennifer Baichwal can be found inside in the case.

clydefro jones

Updated: Aug 20, 2012

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