The New York Times
By A. O. SCOTT
Published: April 24, 2012
Why the Debt That Burdens the Modern World Is About More Than Money
A glance at the headlines from Europe, the news from Washington or this month’s bills will confirm that we live in an age of debt. Debt, a concept at once straightforward and almost metaphysically complex, is a source of personal, national and global anxiety, and forms a link between the individual and the worldwide economic system. The writer Margaret Atwood, whose book inspired the film. It also extends far beyond the domain of money, into the realms of psychology, morality and religion. “We owe God a death,” says Feeble in “Henry IV, Part 2,” and in the meantime what we owe ourselves, our friends, our children, our country and our species is beyond counting.
The Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood defines the subject of her book “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth” — which originated as the 2008 Massey Lectures in Toronto — as “one of the most worrisome and puzzling things I know: that peculiar nexus where money, narrative or story, and religious belief intersect, often with explosive force.” Ms. Atwood is a witty and astute writer of broad sympathy and wide-ranging curiosity, and the prose of the book, at once commonsensical and counterintuitive, bristles with insight and implication.
Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary, also titled “Payback ” and inspired by Ms. Atwood’s book (and not to be confused with the Mel Gibson thriller of the same name), tries to keep up with that writer’s agile mind and to flesh out some of her ideas in concrete images and specific stories.
With Ms. Atwood herself on hand to provide commentary and intellectual guidance, Ms. Baichwal (“Manufactured Landscapes,” “Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles”) contemplates a blood feud in northern Albania, the terrible working conditions of tomato pickers in Florida and the aftermath of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Her interview subjects include participants and witnesses, and also a smattering of experts, among them the economist Raj Patel, the ecologist William Rees and the religion scholar Karen Armstrong, who wrote “A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”
The testimony is often fascinating, and the stories are gripping, in particular the grim Albanian situation, a land dispute between neighbors bound up in a deep and ancient code of honor and vengeance.
But the film never provides a conceptual framework that would allow the viewer to see this vendetta, the poisoning of the Gulf and the virtual enslavement of farm workers as meaningful instances of the same thing. Ms. Baichwal sometimes seems to be so absorbed in the details of each case that the viewer is left groping after connections, and ultimately is more puzzled than enlightened.
Worse, the examples seem arbitrary, given the urgency and ubiquity of the film’s major theme in contemporary life (and in most of human existence, according to “Debt: The First 5,000 Years,” a sweeping history of the topic by the anthropologist and anti-corporate activist David Graeber). Ms. Baichwal was not obligated to address the collapse of the Greek economy or the American housing market, nor to wade into the intricacies of predatory lending, capital flight or budgetary accounting. Nor did she have to tackle the role of sacrifice and obligation in the world’s major religions.
But the almost complete avoidance of those topics seems like a failure, either of imagination or of nerve. You can’t help feeling that the movie owed its subject — and its audience — a bit more.
Opens on Wednesday in Manhattan.
Written and directed by Jennifer Baichwal, based on the book “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth,” by Margaret Atwood; director of photography, Nicholas de Pencier; edited by Nick Hector; music by Martin Tielli and Gabriel Morley; produced by Ravida Din; released by Zeitgeist Films. At Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village. In English, Spanish and Albanian, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes. This film is not rated.