Film Review: Payback

Three real-life horror stories are linked by the theme of debt in this informative but sometimes wandering doc.

Debt is the subject of Payback, Jennifer Baichwall’s documentary based on the book by esteemed author Margaret Atwood. Atwood herself appears in the film and is a welcome, bracing intelligence in a film that, while undoubtedly worthy and serious, is in definite need of an anchor.

Baichwall focuses on three stories of justice-in-question: a blood feud between two families in rural Albania, the hideous mistreatment of tomato pickers in Florida and the 2006 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, for which, to date, no one has been directly held accountable. All three, of course, are powerful accounts, and Baichwall definitely knows where to put her camera, giving us a comprehensive look into each. But her choice of structure in breaking up the stories, intercutting them and doling out details in an effort to provide unnecessary dramatic “arc” is distracting and rather undercuts their impact.

Whether it’s a fight between neighbors over ancient family territory that ends in gunfire, the hardscrabble existence of immigrant farm workers or that greasily unthinkable, most unnatural of disasters, these conflicts all stem basically from economics. Atwood offers a pithy observation about the “trickle down” theory of wealth and how this metaphor “is not a gushing waterfall but a leaking tap.”

What’s particularly eerie about the oil catastrophe is just how uncannily photogenic it is, as footage shows incendiary flowers of flame and the dread encroachment of brown sludge into pristine aquamarine water. In Florida, we are shown a modern museum of slavery but, as economist Raj Patel remarks, people are never encouraged to think about anything negative—like the exploitation of human lives—which might effect their fast-food enjoyment, for example. (Patel is one of the other eloquent speakers Baichwall has assembled, which also include Louise Arbor, head of the International Crisis Group, ecologist William Rees and religious writer Karen Armstrong.)

One of the Albanians involved in the “kanun,” or ancient law involving blood feuds, after giving vituperative testimony about his despised neighbor, sings a traditional song with lyrics: “Let’s come together and try to talk and never have blood feud again.” This naked irony is not lost on Baichwall, naturally, and shows how words, however eloquent and cherished for generations, can be no more efficacious than all those heinous lies offered by BP officials.