Film: Payback re-imagines Atwood's literary exploration of debt

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Payback film poster

Margaret Atwood is rightfully Canada's grande dame of letters. The Massey Lectures are the pre-eminent showcase for academic thought in this country. The National Film Board is Canada's pioneering institute of innovative film production. Jennifer Baichwal is an award-winning director of thoughtful and visually stunning films. You might expect the nexus of these elements to render the film version of Atwood's Payback the greatest adaptation of all time. But Payback the film is not an adaptation of Payback the book. The film is a creative reimagining of the book, which requires not a little chutzpah when you are working with Atwood material.

Written as a Massey Lecture, Payback is a collection of Atwood's musings on the subject of debt. She explores the significance of debt from its legal origins in the Code of Hammurabi, through Greek and Roman mythology, to contemporary international finance, and the concept of environmental footprint. Her prose is, as always, meticulous, playful, and a pleasure in its own right.

Visually, the film Payback owes more to Baichwal's award-winning film Manufactured Landscapes than Atwood's book. The overhead shots of oil slicks in the Gulf of Mexico oozing from the blown out BP Explorer rig show that environmental disaster can make for spectacular visuals. But these are never referenced in the book. And if this is an injection of film language to illustrate a debt-related point, it is never intellectually or viscerally clear. Academic activist Raj Patel has to hammer home the point verbally.

Particularly poignant, although also unrelated to the book, is the story of an Albanian family under self-imposed house arrest. The reason they have shut themselves and their children away is to avoid having one of them killed in an ongoing blood feud. The stoicism of the children imprisoned by their father's blood debt is the most striking demonstration of debt as a psychic wound. It is also the most visceral display of how it is the youngest that pay for the impulsiveness of earlier generations.

Florida farm workers picking tomatoes is also a powerful visual representation of the debt we owe workers for the food on our tables. The backbreaking pace of the work is relentless. The revelation that there have been actual cases of farm worker slavery is heart breaking. This is exploitation at its worst, and no reparation can ever repay these workers for their brutal toil. But again, this powerful segment is in no way related to Atwood's book.

Where Baichwal goes wrong in her creativity is in the use of Conrad Black, out of custody while appealing his fraud conviction. Black opines on the nature of American injustice and mass incarceration. Although Baichwal no doubt intends this segment to be ironic, Black as poster boy for incarcerated America is, well, a little rich. He is a bit less pompous than usual, but that is to be expected given his recent stint in a house of correction. His usual social Darwinism is moderated somewhat. He goes so far as to state that the poor should not be preyed upon by the "misdirected cunning" of the wealthy. He also has the presence of mind to realize that the country club to which he was sentenced wasn't all that bad. Incarcerated in a less inviting institution, and more representative of the average American inmate, is Paul Mohammed. His inclusion is a counterpoint to Conrad Black in the film's treatment of the "paying your debt to society" concept. Mr. Mohammed has been imprisoned repeatedly for drug offences. But the debt that seems to weigh on him most heavily was a break-and-enter on the home of a Holocaust survivor. He sold her jewellery for crack. Like Black, Mohammed's part in the film appears to be a dress rehearsal for a parole hearing.

Atwood's prose is vigorous and playful. The film weaves her in as she is tapping on her MacBook Air (product placement?) in a hotel suite, and alternately delivering her Massey Lecture to a group of university students. She holds an audience in thrall by virtue of her stature in Canadian letters. In the film, the slow landscape pans, and aerial shots of beautiful disasters, though beautiful, do not succeed in translating the impact of Atwood's prose. At the end of the film, everybody, including Atwood and Conrad Black, are reading from the book Payback. It is meant to signify how the book can be transformative. In the end, this ends up being the least effective scene in the movie.

The tag line for the film is "Some Debts Can't Be Paid With Money." Undoubtedly this is true. It is also true that some ideas, and the prose in which they are expressed, cannot easily be reduced to film. Jennifer Baichwal has taken a creative run at Payback, bringing to bear all of her considerable talents. Her creation bears little relation to Atwood's book. So if you have read Payback you had better be prepared to put aside all of your preconceptions in order to watch Payback. Then you will enjoy a good film treatment of the same subject.

Humberto DaSilva is a regular contributor to Not Rex Murphy on rabbleTV.

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