Payback (Zeitgeist Films, NR)

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dvd paybackOne wonders if William Rees insisted in being interviewed while kayaking, as if to underline his superiority to mere desk-bound intellectuals.


The Massey Lectures, presented annually at the University of Toronto, are the most prestigious lecture series in Canada. Presented over a week and on a philosophical, political, or cultural topic, the Lectures have been presented by some of the greatest thinkers and writers of modern times, including Northrop Frye, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Martin Luther King, Jr., on topics like “The Real World of Democracy,” “The Unconscious Civilization,” and “Nostalgia for the Absolute.”

So there is no question that the Massey Lectures are a great cultural institution, and no doubt any of them would make fine reading. Whether they would serve as raw material for a fine documentary film is another question entirely, and one I would have to answer in the negative, given my experience first with A Short History of Progress and now with Payback.

Payback is Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary based on Margaret Atwood’s 2008 Massey Lecture, “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth.” The film opens with the sound of typing, and Atwood appears regularly, often reading her own words, but most of the movie is made up of little vignettes presenting different instances of indebtedness, in the broadest sense of the world, along with various talking heads (economist Raj Patel, religion scholar Karen Armstrong). Atwood is great, and so is her text—in fact, she makes a stronger impact in the brief segments when she’s reading it aloud than does the entire rest of the film.

The idea seems to have been to make Atwood’s thoughts concrete, and so we hear from the parties to an Albanian blood feud, migrant workers in Florida and the company charged with mistreating them; two convicts from different worlds (media mogul Conrad Black and burglar/drug addict Paul Mohammed); and a woman concerned about the ecological effects of the BP explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. The cinematography is beautiful and the individuals interviewed come across as sincere (ecologist William Rees is the exception—one wonders if he insisted in being interviewed while kayaking, as if to underline his superiority to mere desk-bound intellectuals), but the film remains a collection of parts rather than a cohesive whole.

I’m not sure anyone could make a successful film out of the essentially abstract ideas contained in Atwood’s text, or to better follow Atwood’s brilliant wanderings. Neither am I sure anyone could make a better attempt than Baichwal did with this film, but that doesn’t make the end result good. There’s a very effective bit of cinematic work near the end, but all in all, you’re better off reading the book.

Extras on the DVD include three additional scenes (one featuring Jane Goodall), a Q&A with Atwood and Baichwal at the New York opening, and the theatrical trailer. | Sarah Boslaugh

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