Jennifer Baichwal is a whip smart documentarian that works conceptually to create films that linger in the mind. Her stunning 2006 documentary, "Manufactured Landscapes," was shaped by the photography of Edward Burtynsky, which captured landscapes eerily transmogrified by human industry.
In her latest project, "Payback," she uses Margaret Atwood’s book, "Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth," as the basis for a multi-narrative consideration of the metaphor of debt. As the tag line, ’Some debts cannot be paid with money’, announces, this isn’t a film about economics or finance but about various kinds of human interactions - with each other on both an intimate and a societal level, as well as with the environment.
Baichwal does well to bring together four rather disparate threads in her discussion of indebtedness and the struggle it entails. One could make a documentary solely on, for example, the plight of migrant tomato farmers in Florida; and that would be a worthy social justice documentary that would attract a certain audience. However, Baichwal has created a film that is political but which also transcends politics. It’s about human frailty and the possibility (or impossibility) for redemption. Greed, exploitation, criminality, and the backlash- the elements that one would expect from an activist doc- are here, but so is fidelity to an artistic concept.
Clips of Atwood reading or delivering a lecture are intercut with scenes from the fight against Pacific Tomato Growers, who literally enslaved workers on its southern Florida farms; a blood feud between two families in the remote northern region of Albania; the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and a contrite prisoner who shattered the sense of security of a Holocaust survivor when he broke into her home to steal jewelry in order to pay for his drug habit.
The old-fashioned, bloodthirsty enmity in Albania is certainly the most rarefied of the subjects, with a glimpse into an unfamiliar backwater that seems stuck in the past; but even if one is well familiar with the Immokalee workers’ fight in Florida or the BP spill, this film’s angle will provide a new context in which to consider these contemporary atrocities.
The film also does well to balance the emotional and intellectual. Certain scenes, such as Paul Mohammed’s reading of the testimony of his victim and his own testimony of his guilty conscious and the cycle of drug abuse and arrest that constrain him are emotionally compelling. Concise interview segments with experts - other than Atwood - provide an intellectual framework. Significant is the fact that the idea of an underlying balancing force is nearly universal across societies. For example, in India there is the wheel of karmic justice.
Baichwal also takes us to the world’s first penitentiary, and through that we consider the nature of the current prison system and criminalization, that now the system is less about isolating prisoners so that they pay their debt to society and then return reformed. Now, there is a permanent stigmatization and no emphasis on reform.
The interview subjects could be better identified, and some moments are more insightful than others; but overall this is a trenchant reflection on how we live.
"Payback" plays June 21-27 at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. For further details, visit the MFA website.