Home Video Hovel- Payback, by David Bax
Documentary films come in so many different flavors, it’s almost laughable that they are treated as one single genre. Two of those styles that exist side by side are fact-based documentaries and editorial documentaries. Even those have no clear dividing line between them. Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job from 2010 would definitely qualify as fact-based but it also has an undeniable point of view. Jennifer Baichwal’s new film Payback is pretty firmly in the editorial camp, containing so few hard facts that it actually injures its own agenda-based directives.
Margaret Atwood’s 2008 nonfiction work, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, serves as Baichwal’s playbook as she explores various types of debt that have manifested themselves in human culture because of a shared, Platonic ideal of balance to which we seem always to be trying to restore ourselves. Baichwal returns throughout the film to these different thematic strands, all while continually referencing the book, as read aloud by Atwood herself in a hypnotic voice like a failing loudspeaker that’s been cycling through the same monotone announcement for years.
Baichwal, just as she did in her memorable 2006 film Manufactured Landscapes, refuses to abandon the aesthetic possibilities of cinema in favor of documentary’s de rigueur low-key, “vérité” approach. There are crisp, rich images in Payback – such as those of the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill – that are as breathtaking as they are unsettling. There is also a deep, nearly tactile sound design that reinforces the larger-than-life construct of the film.
Multiple permutations of debt are engaged. One of Baichwal’s chief focuses is the notion that punishment for a crime fulfills a debt to society. There are interviews with an American man who is in prison for breaking and entering. There are also lengthy sections dealing with a man under a sort of house arrest in Albania. Years ago, he attempted to kill his neighbor. Now, according to traditional Kanun law observed in some parts of Albania, he must now remain on his own property. If he leaves it, the neighbor or his family can rightfully kill the man. Backing up and pontificating these examples is not just Atwood’s words but interviews with various experts, such as economist Raj Patel, who is one of many who weigh in on oil company BP’s debt for the toll it has taken on nature with things such as the Horizon explosion.
This topic, which dominates the latter part of the documentary, lends Payback its prevailing anti-corporate stance. Much of this attack is rooted in well-stated arguments. For example, if the spill did $100 billion worth of damage, how can BP’s $20 billion reparations fund be considered adequate? From there, however, Baichwal and Atwood go on, extrapolating their position on BP to essentially paint all corporations the same shade of evil. Jennifer Abbot and Mark Achbar’s 2003 editorial documentary The Corporation made a damn good case that all such entities are in fact evil, or at least sociopathic. But it took them nearly two and a half hours of running time. Baichwal, unfortunately, doesn’t even spend five minutes convincing us. She simply takes it as read.
A fact-based documentary attempts to teach you things. An editorial tries to persuade you. Payback does a decent job of persuasion until its final reel, where it overreaches and, in so doing, undermines the validity of its entire preceding argument.
Special features include a Q&A with Atwood and Baichwal and some deleted scenes.