Published Mar 15, 2012In adapting Margaret Atwood's sprawling, novel-length essay on the ideological notion of debt as a human construct of subjugation, documentarian Jennifer Baichwal has adopted its more idealistic conceits about vengeance and Mother Earth as a metaphor. Payback eschews much of the discourse on historical literature as a treatise on fiscal priority, antinomianism and analysis of Faustian bargains in favour of a desultory hodgepodge of incidental signifiers from within the existing lexicon.
Baichwal's primary focus is that of environment and worker exploitation, which, in part, is a valid decision given the obvious template of examining global debt in a post-economic crisis environment. But she mixes sequences of foreign labour in Florida, noted as tomato picking slavery, with Conrad Black interviews, the BP oil spill and an Albanian blood feud, only to flounder in tenuous territory when trying to patch it all together.
Because the many talking points from various academics lead to the notion of debt as an imposing force, suggesting that it's a way of marginalizing lower classes and ensuring punishment for those unable to adhere to the greater sense of social morality, an overall theme does emerge. Unfortunately, it proves problematic during tangential discussions about using chemical dispersant on oil spills, same as it does when the metaphor of drug usage is manipulated in overly simplistic terms to fit the existing thesis.
It's also odd that most of the compelling rants from Atwood's essay are left out of the documentary entirely, while some of her more embarrassing and glib assertions ― the overly concise and inane allegory of "Scrooge Nouveau" being visited by Green Party ghosts, revealing him as morally penniless in the future ― are featured.
Had Baichwal contemplated factors that Atwood didn't acknowledge from within a Luddite vacuum, such as the modes in which financial entities work as borrowers and lenders, this could have been an interesting companion piece to a thought provoking work.
Instead, this idealistic work of hippie-dippy tedium exists as a disorganized romanticizing of concepts and social assertions that don't take into account the nature of human instinct and how this future vision is impossible if we keep socializing people to think they're special and entitled. (Mongrel Media)