Sunday, April 22, 2012

PAYBACK: Jennifer Baichwal's film of the book by Margaret Atwood explores debt, revenge and restitution -- from Albania to Florida tomato-pickers and the Gulf oil spill

How good to have -- in the midst of our monthly (if not weekly) documen-taries on the dire state of the planet Earth, so far as continued life for human beings is concerned -- a new one, PAYBACK, that is actually artful in its combination and use of subject matter and methodology. We might expect as much from Jennifer Baichwal, the woman who earlier gave us Act of God (the struck-by-lightning movie), Manufactured Landscapes (a documentary in which TrustMovies was somewhat disappointed) and the bizarre-but-eye-opening, not exactly a bio-doc Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles.

Ms Baichwal's method (the filmmaker is shown at right) is usually to come at her subject sidelong so that we're into it eventually but not perhaps in quite the way we would have initially imagined. Here she takes Ms Atwood's words literally, having the author speak to us from readings she gave in her original 2008 Massey Lecture Series or, more impromptu, sitting in her home and speaking quietly to the camera. That this does not last long is all to the good for Ms Atwood, as fine a writer as she is, is not much of a speaker. She tends to drone, so the little bit we hear is plenty.

What Ms Atwood (shown above) has to say, however, is urgent, thoughtful and well worth hearing and wrestling with. So Ms Baichwal gives this to us via talking heads (like the disgraced and formerly imprisoned Canadian media mogul Conrad Black, below)

and laboring bodies (the men, below, who pick tomatoes for a large Florida-based company). Prisons and prison life are also explored -- from the point of view of a wealthy man like Mr. Black and what he experienced, as well as from that of an immigrant/repeat offender.

In her most moving segments, Baichwal goes out to a man in prison, a drug addict who, as soon as he gets out of stir, goes right back to the same drugs and crime -- and so ends up behind bars again. His lament and sorrow for the pain he has caused an old woman whom he robbed (he tells us she was even a Holocaust survivor) seems hugely like a payback of sorts.

The filmmaker treks down to our gulf states to explore the left-overs from the BP oil catastrophe (above), and we hear from Casi Callaway of Mobile Baykeeper about the damages (some of them-- the use of chemical dispersants -- made worse by BP's post-spill actions). The film also spends a good deal of time in Albania, showing us the ongoing ramifications of a blood feud (this will seem very familiar to those who've recently viewed The Forgiveness of Blood) between families, one member of which is shown below. As usual, Baichwal seems less interested in any hard and fast investigation or where the truth might lie than in an even-handed plea for understanding between the participants. Good luck.

Early on, Ms Atwood takes the old cliché that crime does not pay, and tweaks it into something more meaningful to the times in which we now live: Crime does not pay its debt to society. Until it does, until it is forced to do so, we're on a downhill path away from justice and the necessary social good, and into... I shudder to ponder this.

A cynical friend of mine once told me that the entire history of civilization can be reduced to three words: Slaughter for tchotchkes. The still from the movie, above, reminded me of this idea and then of the documentary's choice of debt examples: political, moral, spiritual and financial. (I wish more time had been spent on the idea of the many ways that debt plays into the world's current financial crisis, but I guess Ms Baichwal's time and/or choices were limited, or perhaps Ms Atwood did not cover this subject at any length in her lectures or book.)

In any case, Payback (85 minutes, from Zeitgeist Films) opens this Wednesday, April 25, in New York City at Film Forum. (Click here for screening times and/or to purchase tickets). To see other currently scheduled playdates for the film, with cities and theaters, simply click here.

Note: Both Atwood and Baichwal will be making personal appearances at Film Forum on opening day, April 25, at the following screenings:  6:30pm and 8:20pm. In addition, Ms Baichwal will appear in person on Thursday, April 26, at the 8:20 screening.

All photos are from the film itself, 
except that of Ms Baichwal, which 
comes courtesy of The Walrus Magazine.

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