written and directed by Jennifer Baichwal, based on Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood
by Angelo Muredda Midway through Payback, Jennifer Baichwal's fifth feature documentary, we're given an alarming overhead view of the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill. At first, all we see is a dark pool of water, but before long a sickly orange substance starts tracking left through it, nearly filling the frame. The orange stuff, we're told, is chemical dispersant, and its job is to both break up the oil slick and push it below the surface, whatever the cost to the animal and plant life that happens to already be there. Not least for the way it suggests a scale that's been thrown out of balance, it's a striking visual metaphor for Baichwal's subject, which is the impossible work of translation we undertake whenever we try to square intangible debts with material payouts--in this case, dispersing oil with toxic chemicals. As one commentator points out, it'll be decades before we know just how large the ecological debt we've amassed as a result of the Gulf spill is--and even then, to think of it in terms of dues paid is to forget that dead fish can't cash cheques.
Aesthetically, that tableau (stunningly framed by Nick de Pencier) recalls Manufactured Landscapes, the director's 2006 film about photographer Edward Burtynsky, whose work captures natural landscapes invaded by human industry. This time the source is literary: the 2008 Massey Lecture series of the same title by Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood. Atwood, as Baichwal is quick to point out in conversation, is not the subject of the film but an author, and to some extent its author. While all of Baichwal's features take their cue from other artists, the goal is not simply to profile them in their element. Her work tends to go after something thornier; one thinks of the dizzying moment in The True Meaning of Pictures where we shift uneasily between a critic's takedown of one of Shelby Lee Adams's seemingly exploitative photos of a disabled woman and the filmmakers' own footage of the shoot.
If the ambivalence in that film's relationship to its subject stems from Baichwal's complicated position between the artist, his milieu, and his critics, here it's largely in the nature of the adaptation, which effectively breaks the spine of the book to let it speak for this new project. Atwood is introduced in voiceover as she delivers a ritual exchange from, tellingly, her final as opposed to her first lecture: "Nice weather we're having." "We'll pay for it later." Rather than retrace the structure of the book's arguments, then, Payback announces early on that this is to be a riff--following the author's suppositions on indebtedness into the director's own territory, which extends to the Gulf Coast as well as to Albania, the site of a blood feud among neighbours, and Florida, where shamefully mistreated tomato-farm workers are organizing for fairer wages and better working conditions.
The directions in which the film takes Atwood's text are surprisingly complementary to the source, considering the book gravitates towards literary examples, from Aeschylus to George Eliot. They're also risky: One doesn't necessarily make the leap from imprisoned media mogul Conrad Black to a man whose drug addiction cyclically lands him in a medium-security prison, at least not without help. But Baichwal makes smart contrapuntal use of their stories to get at the strangeness of our apparent faith that the prison is some sort of penance-extracting machine. Only the final moments, where this rainbow coalition of disparate players reads from Atwood's closing lecture, specifically from the printed pages of the book, feel slightly out of place--redemptive where the rest of the picture is meditative. Atwood's book begins with the admission that her motive for speaking about debt is "curiosity--mine;" like Baichwal's other artistic collaborations, Payback shares its surrogate author's curiosity and tries to renegotiate that "mine" to "ours." Originally published: March 16, 2012.