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Owing Me, Owing You

Kenneth Crab May 3, 2012

Directed by Jennifer Baichwal
Zeitgeist Films, 2012


Taking her cue from Margaret Atwood’s 2008 essay collection Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, director Jennifer Baichwal marshals a patchwork of stories — from a North Albanian vendetta and the Gulf oil spill to the vision behind Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary and the South Florida Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ struggles against slave labor — that explore the manifold imprints of debt that stain the fabric of Western civilization. However, given the obvious good intentions and craftsmanship, one is left wondering why Payback didn’t turn out to be a better film.

Recurrent scenes of Atwood preparing and delivering a lecture on the topic of debt fail to adequately connect the featured stories. None of them stem from her work and their selection feels so scattershot that the film ends up less than the sum of its parts. The alternation of the writer reading before a live audience and the sound of her typing as she puts her ideas down on the page is quite evocative, but Baichwal’s reluctance to probe the genesis of Atwood’s prose more directly proves a letdown and gives Payback an impersonal tone. Even in the many interviews, she refrains from establishing close connections with her subjects (almost all likable, intelligent individuals). A sole, moving exception is the atonement of Paul Mohammed, a Pakistani ex-convict caught in a vicious cycle of drug addiction and jail fueled by his shame over robbing an old lady who now lives in mortal fear of him. How has prison fulfilled Mohammed’s debt to society, especially after we hear from his mother about the racist abuse he underwent as a child?

Payback lifts the veil, but only to skim the surface of complex circumstances. The cinematography revels in crisp, picturesque images and balanced, panoramic compositions that appear carefully detached, while the music rings equally solemn. In the fascinating, tragic account of an Albanian family who has lived in isolation for years after the father shot another man in a land dispute, and the latter’s right to revenge was formalized as a blood feud according to the centuries-old Kanun code, a more visible presence and involvement on the part of the filmmaker would have been far more engaging. Baichwal arguably adopts a philosophical approach akin to Atwood’s, but lacks her sense of humor and whimsy. (“Notice that the metaphor is not that of a gushing waterfall, but of a leaking tap,” the author skewers the trickle-down theory of economics.)

Even though our species now owes the planet on an unprecedented scale (in the film, William Rees posits the inadequacy of capitalism in the face of a mounting ecological deficit), debt remains, as Atwood asserts, a highly subjective, people-oriented principle: “how we think about it changes how it works,” as does how we think about others. Have we ever felt less intrinsically indebted to — or more free not to care about — the lot of our fellow humans? In Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the Global Economy, which includes a far more detailed take on Immokalee farm worker activism than Payback provides, John Bowe states that “in 1970, 79 percent of American college freshmen said their primary goal in life was to develop a meaningful philosophy of life. In 2005, 75 percent said their primary objective was to be financially very well off.” It behooves us to heed Georg Simmel’s seminal insight (from The Philosophy of Money) that our condition is “composed of both a measure of obligation and a measure of freedom” in such a way that one is “realized in content, the other in form.” Therefore debt cannot be resolved, it can only be displaced. Or, as Paul Mohammed reflects, you can put the person in prison, but the problem remains.

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