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‘Payback’ will have audiences thinking, even though it only skims the surface of its topic


Directed by Jennifer Baichwal

Written by Margaret Atwood (book) and Jennifer Baichwal (adaptation)

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Canada, 2012

Movies inspired on books are a dime a dozen, with almost every week there being something released in theatres which is based on some of sort of novel. Very often, whenever the source material happens to be much beloved, the ire of the film goers curious about of cinematic translation is felt shortly after the opening weekend. It also seems second nature to readers and movie goers: love the book but loath the film. Of course, in the majority of cases, said films are based on fiction literature. An entirely different sort of adaptation is required when the source material is an essay and documentary form, which is precisely the challenge director Jennifer Baichwal faced when translating Margaret Atwood’s intellectual exploration of the notion of debt from the page to the screen.

Baiwchawl film takes the form of a talking head documentary, with a series of interviews edited into few minutes episodes which are dispersed into the film so as to have the audience re-visit each subject for a few minutes at a time before being whisked away back to another interviewee. Among those revealing what payback means to them and how it has affected their lives are a man currently serving his fourth or fifth prison sentence, this time for breaking and entering into an elderly woman’s home, two rival men who entered a heated argument over land ownership in a remote region of an Eastern European country, specialist in the ecological and environment sector who constantly struggle with Man’s daily abuse of the earth and oceans, and, in a nice little surprise, Canada’a most famous and possibly hated media mogul, Conrad Black. The film sways to and fro between each individual’s own perspective on the notion of paying back a debt one owes, with the occasional soundbite from the the book’s author, Margaret Atwood, when she was the speaker at the Massey Lecture a couple of years ago.

Topping of the list of elements that viewers will take away from Payback is its myriad of definitions of the very terms ‘payback’ and ‘debt.’ From the very outset, the film takes a very open approach to discussing the topic of people’s debts, proposing a multifaceted study. The picture begins unassumingly, inviting the audience gaze upon the vista of a mountainous region somewhere in Albania. Cut to a simple looking man, probably in his mid to late 30s, sporting a leather jacket, explaining (with juicier details to follow later in the film) how some time ago his neighbour demanded, at gunpoint, that the former crawl of his land. When the current interviewee rejected the demand, he was promptly shot. The section of Albanian society in which the two men live in, which also happens to be secluded from the the rest of society, operates on a traditional, unwritten code of law which allows for a variety of ‘tit for tat’ redemption. The man who fired the pistol has since been forced to live strictly within the own confines of his home and surrounding garden. Should he choose to leave the premise, the victim of the bullet injury would literally have to right to kill him. The punishment, or payback in this case, is exclusion from the rest of society, a concept not entirely foreign to what most other countries in the world practice when they imprison men and women found guilty of crimes for specific stretches of time, which of course is the topic the film jumps to next, with a brief introduction to one of the United States’ oldest penitentiaries (as if the audience was about to embark on a guided tour, although that never actually transpires), with a subsequent shift of focus towards a man currently serving time as a repeat offender for mostly theft and drug use.

‘From the very outset, the film takes a very open approach to discussing the topic of people’s debts, proposing a multifaceted study.’

Payback essentially hops from topic to topic in non linear fashion, inviting a generous host of opinions on what it means for one to pay their debt to society or the planet at large. Structurally, Jennifer Baichwal’s film is very loose, never spending too much time on one interviewee’s perspective in attempt to keep things fresh, with a healthy mix of disparate stories. Undoubtedly, whatever credit the movie earns from this is surprising the viewer and, perhaps more than anything, forcing him or her to question their own interpretation of ‘payback’ and ‘debt’, an interpretation which is so often tied to the idea of balancing what one owes in monetary value to another individual or institution. Clearly, there are more than a few ways in which people can ‘owe something’ to others, be they specific individuals or or society at large. Unsurprisingly, the film is mostly dour in mood, attacking what Baichwal, and by extension author Atwood herself, believe to be the many nonsensical ways to force people to pays their proverbial debts. Granted, sometimes the approach to the topic is more observational, the case of the ancient Albanian code of revenge being one instance for which the audience is invited to make judgement rather than the movie itself, while during other stretches the film is clearly painting a practice is very poor light, the most evident example being the United States government’s handling of the nightmarish oil spill which plagued waters off of Louisiana in the spring of 2010.

‘Perhaps a wiser decision… would have been to have each segment play out in full rather than have bits of pieces of their interviews interspersed throughout.’

There should be little debate among movie goers as to whether or not such topics are worthy of a documentary. Witnessing an genuine emotional confession from a prison inmate for the psychological stress he has scarred his latest victim with or to hear Conrad Black compare the methods by which he was forced to serve his own sentence in comparison with what other criminals must live through (he had daily access to the internet, periodicals, acceptable food and so forth) is fascinating to say least. However, one must consider if each individual subject did not deserve their own feature length film. Despite that the director wants to provide the audience with a clear enough understanding of what payback can mean for different people across the globe, there are moments when the film will cut to another segment whereas the viewer might want to spend more time with the previous interviewee because he or she was really digging into some juicy, intellectual and emotional discourse. Perhaps a wiser decision, at least one that would have given the impression that each subject’s story received its due, would have been to have each segment play out in full rather than have bits of pieces of their interviews interspersed throughout. It is not exactly clear why the episodes are cut into 3-4 minute chapters amongst each other, and it does hurt the fluidity of the film to a degree.

Payback ultimately opens the door for the audience to walk into a new venue of discourse regarding who in human society needs to pay their dues and how they go about it. Does it ever dive deep into its multiple subject matters? Unfortunately no, therefore incurring the risk of having the audience leave the film wanting a bit too much more. Suffice to say, at least it is a conversation starter, one that encourages people to question their own perception of the topic. Oftentimes the questions that beg being asked are the same few want to aboard. According to Payback, it is high time for humanity to pay its dues to the better solutions to Earth’s problems and actually use them.

-Edgar Chaput