Debts Unpaid

Payback Poster An oil spill disaster worker describes how BP’s cleanup of the Gulf of Mexico made matters worse. A blood feud keeps an Albanian couple and four children locked in their home seven years after a gun injury. A drug addicted prison inmate weeps at the terror he caused a burglary victim. These are just some of the diverse layers Jennifer Baichwal drills to understand concepts of debt in Payback. Margaret Atwood provides narrative from her book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, which inspired the documentary. However, Baichwal’s research and visual narrative lend greater power to the arguments.

Poetry hardly fits the topic, but Baichwal achieves it with the help of cinematographer Nicholas de Pencier, her husband. The stories overlap and and unfold along divergent lines. Some of the most evocative scenes portray daily life of migrant tomato pickers who have been subject to exploitation and slavery in Florida. Along the way she draws in various voices, from ecologist William Rees to economist Raj Patel. During his temporary release, Conrad Black describes failures of the prison industry from personal experience.

The film holds up debt like a weapon for all sleuths and philosophers to examine. In most of these instances it represents a criminal’s debt to society. However, it parallels debts of inequity—owed by the food industry and consumers to tomato growers, for example—not considered criminal. It asks what happens when people with debts can never repay them, or will not. We must not return to the ancient, destructive justice of blood feuds illustrated by two Albanian families. Our transforming world has far to go in understanding who owes whom what, and how to fix that. We are all, especially the wealthiest of us, in debt. It is easy to ingore, but the longer we do it, the worse it gets.

As I got up to leave the theatre, a woman near the back was arguing loudly: “Why doesn’t anyone ever point out there are too many people?” What about too many excuses? Civilization cannot sustain such apathy.


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