Adapting non-fiction to cinema can be tricky even for a documentarian, but Jennifer Baichwal makes a game effort at turning Margaret Atwood’s book-length essay Payback: Debt And The Shadow Side Of Wealth into a movie. Starting from a foundation of Atwood’s lectures, Baichwal adds interviews and stories that illustrate Atwood’s points about the different kinds of debt: not just monetary, but debts of honor, and debts to society. Baichwal talks to convicts, both current and former. She covers the BP oil spill in the Gulf, and considers the exploitation of migrant labor in Florida. And in the most riveting passages of Payback, Baichwal relates the strange tale of an Albanian blood feud, which has resulted in one family being effectively imprisoned for years, because the patriarch knows his former neighbor has the legal right to shoot him if they ever cross paths.
Frankly, Baichwal could’ve built the entire movie around the Albanian story, because it encapsulates so much of what Payback is about: the idea of debt as a social construct, independent of justice or fairness. The two sides in this particular dispute differ on the details, but the basic facts are that they argued over a fence, tensions escalated, and one non-fatally shot the other. Ever since, the shooter has been in exile, suffering a punishment far worse than his original crime. How does this relate to BP, or to tomato-picking wage-slaves? The connection has to do with the way we apportion power, based largely on wealth, which Atwood proposes is fundamentally illusory.
That connection is extremely loose, though, and shades a bit too far into poetic “imagine no possessions” territory for such an otherwise grounded inquiry into values. The structure of the film isn’t very helpful either, as Baichwal toggles between stories, diffusing some of their individual impact. Payback attempts something impressively difficult, but it succeeds primarily in its individual moments, such as when one Gulf fisherman mentions that the U.S. Coast Guard would ticket most private citizens for using chemical dispersants only a fraction of the strength of those BP used on their spill, or when a prisoner tells the story of how he converted one Holocaust survivor’s lifetime of possessions into a few hits of crack cocaine. Those scenes have real clarity, stepping down from the utopian clouds to ask real questions about what we owe, who we owe, and why.