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Payback (2012)

by on 2013/09/08

Payback (2012)

“Is it payback? I don’t know. I think it’s just change.”

* * *

How are we to interpret the titular word in the documentary Payback? As a reckoning? Revenge? Repayment of debts? Or something else? The answer to all is, apparently, yes.

This feature is based on Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, a collection of lectures by author Margaret Atwood. Footage of her at work forms less a skeleton than connective tissue, with semantics serving as a clever device for segues.

The various threads embodying an aspect of “payback” run throughout, with stories told not in chunks, but across the duration of the film. A pair of Albanian families share a blood feud because a land dispute. Controversial businessman Conrad Black critiques the justice system. A drug addict tries to come to terms with the effects of his criminal acts. A Floridian tomato farm forms the backdrop for abuse and a workers’ revolt. A British Petrol spill prompts “solutions” as destructive as their accident. These and other assorted glimpses lend interest, if not insight.

In general, I’m a fan of such features – see David Suzuki’s Force of Nature – though I didn’t find much in Payback surprising or revelatory. Typical suggestions include the ideas that we’re only as free as the size of our net worth, that capitalism depends on an outdated view of the world, that the wealthiest countries consume the most resources, that corporate actions are driven by public relations, and that the public is encouraged not to think about the slavery perpetuated by consumerism. Admittedly, it’s as tragic as unsurprising these issues have become banal, and yet persist.

Two of my more serious complaints involve Atwood herself and the production. Watching her type about exploitation on a Macbook very nearly defines irony, and the long shots of her editing, irrelevance. The reaction of her live audience sounds pretentious, not truly amused, a haughty self-satisfied chuckling suggesting less impulse to act than to be accepted. Participants read excerpts of her retelling of A Christmas Carol. Such airs flirt with self-indulgence and subvert the greater good.

In regards to the film-making, the speed felt glacially deliberate. From the first shot – a nearly two-minute sweep across mountainous scenery, underscored by the sound of Atwood typing – we’re alerted to the pace of what’s to come. For all the diversity of content, it’s still spread thin and padded out: slow pans over wilderness and old buildings, the silent copy-editing, and seemingly extraneous insert shots. Less may be more, but not when it stays so long.

The impulse to explore these disparate pieces through linguistic and conceptual similarity is interesting, but works much better in theory than in practice, at least in this presentation. While the net result is frequently diverting, it’s uneven, with too little connection. Payback seeks to conjure a synergy, yet suggests no grand direction for most viewers. It’s important stuff, no doubt, but will leave you with more guesswork than gestalt.

* * *

Rated PG

86 minutes

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