Right now in a small village in Albania, there’s a family of five living in fear and isolation, trapped in their own home. Should any of the men in the family leave their compound, they will be killed on sight. The children, two boys and a girl, share a pair of twin beds in a tiny room no bigger than a prison cell, and cook their meagre meals on a hot plate on the floor. Their mother waters seedlings in the garden to grow food to survive. From the look on the face of the littlest son—maybe five years old—it is a life of boredom, loneliness and abject poverty.
This family is paying a debt. Years ago, their father Llesh Prenaga shot his neighbour, claiming he was defending his property and his family. With no systematic ordinance of law in the region to decide on his punishment, the neighbour enacted an ancient Albanian code—a blood feud—vowing that he or a member of his family would kill Llesh Prenaga and any of his male progeny should they ever leave their property. Prenaga is steadfast in his belief he did no wrong, but also longs for reconciliation so they can be free. But sadly, this could be a debt the Prenaga family will never live to repay.
Imagine the future for these children, who through no fault of their own are paying for their father’s actions. It is with this notion that audiences will begin an exploration of the concept of debt and fairness in Jennifer Baichwal’s latest documentary, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, inspired by Margaret Atwood’s 2008 fascinating Massey Lecture and book of the same name. The Massey Lectures is an annual series of lectures delivered by a distinguished academic in cities across Canada. Past lecturers have included such varied thinkers as Martin Luther King Jr., Claude Levi-Strauss and, recently, Douglas Coupland.
Atwood herself appears in the documentary at her desk as she works, and excerpts of her reading the lecture in various cities across Canada forms the narration for the film. Her voice echoes slightly as she reads aloud:
I started thinking about the subject of debt for a number of reasons, but among them was my puzzlement over a turn of phrase, ‘He’s paid his debt to society.’ What happens when people don’t pay their debts, or can’t pay their debts, or won’t pay their debts. What if the debt by its very nature cannot be repaid with money?
Right now, in a small village in Utah, iconic Canadian author Margaret Atwood is sitting across from me on a plastic deck chair next to an indoor hotel pool. She’s in town with filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal to promote the Sundance Film Festival premiere of Payback.
I’ve interviewed many people in this space over the years and always found it a tad unsettling—the deadly quiet pool surrounded by banks of French doors leading into makeshift publicity offices, the tall fake birch trees bathed in blue light filtered through snow-covered skylights above. I get the sense that Atwood is fully in her own skin no matter what the environment, which might ordinarily put me at ease, but it doesn’t. I’m still feeling stirred by the film, and sitting across from the Iron Lady of Canadian literature who’s waiting for me to ask questions hardly allays my concerns.
Finally, I ask one: “How did the Massey Lecture folks react to your choice of subject matter?”
“They were horrified! ‘Can’t we get her to do something else?’” she answers. “I think their first impression was that I was going to write a book about economics, which of course wasn’t it at all. When I submitted the outline I think they breathed a sigh of relief, but it still sounded pretty batty, which is why I never tell my publishers what I’m writing. Because if I told them the general idea they would probably just throw up their hands and stick their heads in the sink.”
The book presents a philosophical and emotional inquiry into the concept of debt. The movie draws inspiration from Atwood’s theories and illustrates them with stories collected from around the world. Both ultimately posit that the human concept of fairness is way out of whack with what is required to keep nature in balance. And it’s getting “whacker.”
Later the same day in a different hotel, I’m in the filmmaker’s cozy suite with the fireplace going. While I’m a little distracted by the constant drone of a snow blower outside, it’s Jennifer Baichwal who feels anxious.
“I always feel slightly uneasy in the United States. I just don’t feel at home. I’m not at home. We’re the same, but we’re not.” I know what she means.
For me, Baichwal’s work is exactly what documentary should be: intelligent, non-preachy, beautiful, philosophical, entertaining. Payback is no exception. I’m not surprised that NFB producer Ravida Din put these two extraordinary women together.
“Ravida, who’s really a wonderful producer, phoned me and said, ‘I think you’d be interested in this.’ But as soon as she said, you know, debt, payback, I said ‘No; I’m not the right person,’” says Baichwal.
“I thought it was about the [economic] meltdown and what led to the meltdown and already there are so many films about that. I’m not an investigative kind of person—that’s not how I get at things—-and I thought I probably wouldn’t be able to do justice to this. But then when I read it, of course, it has everything that I’m interested in. You know, religion and philosophy and literature and biology and all of these things that I find totally fascinating.”
“I knew Jennifer’s work,” Atwood recalls. “Ravida was so keen on doing it and you have to let people have their shot. See what happens. It’s not harmful to me. It’s interesting for me. I knew that whatever [Jennifer] did, it would not be what I might, or what anybody might, expect. It would be something really thoughtful and unusual.”
As a film, Payback raises a lot of big questions, like, can we muster any sympathy for a jailed criminal who robbed and terrorized an elderly woman in her own house for drug money? Should we take into consideration his traumatic childhood when we judge him?
What about a media mogul imprisoned for acts that some would argue are perfectly legal, while others might condemn as greedy and selfish? (Yes, Conrad Black.) Should we feel sorry for him that he was forced to live apart from his massive wealth in a minimum security prison, which even he admits provides better living conditions than most people in the world live in?
And what about the plight of migrant tomato pickers in Florida? To what extent are a few wealthy farming executives entitled to use slave labour? Yet society has stood by and allowed this practice for decades, where backbreaking work is rewarded with pitiful wages and physical and mental abuse. The workers asked Florida’s tomato growers to charge an extra penny per pound for tomatoes so they could earn a decent wage. In response, Reggie Brown, executive VP of the Tomato Growers Exchange described the surcharge as “pretty much un-American,” and led the charge to fight against the change.
Atwood likens this mentality to the character Scrooge from A Christmas Carol. “Why is Scrooge bad?” she asks. “It’s not that he’s a rich old miser. It’s that he’s not circulating his money…If one person gets all the bulk of the money and doesn’t spend any of it, everyone would die. Money is like blood in that it has to circulate, otherwise it’s meaningless.
“That’s why Occupy Wall Street got so much traction,” says Atwood. “And that’s why they’ll be back. Because things have not changed at the top. That’s why I say, all right time to start reading about the French revolution, which unfolded quite slowly. We think of it as bang, revolution, off with their heads, but it unfolded over years. And during that time, people were struggling with the top one percent, trying to work out something more equitable. But the aristocrats were intransigent. You know, if they had moved earlier, they probably would have ended up with a constitutional monarchy like England. But they didn’t. So a lot of heads rolled and the ultimate outcome was Napoleon and a great campaign of raping, looting and pillaging and, ultimately, the collapse of the whole enterprise.”
“Margaret has this capacity to riff on an idea. She gets the idea and then she makes all of these connections,” says Baichwal. “She has a way of looking at [debt] that I think is the complete opposite of the earnest political perspective. And, of course, because I am sort of earnest and, you know, still hope for utopia and all of that…whenever I’ve talked to her about it, she’s like, ‘Now, now, Jennifer, you know we can’t achieve it, it’s not your fault, about the workers, the tomato pickers.’ ‘It is my fault!’ ‘It’s not your fault, it’s not something for you to feel guilty about.’ She’s very funny about that.”
Surprisingly, Atwood brings up the plight of the Albanian family as an example of a kind of balance (albeit a cruel one): “If you do too much forgiving in that code, and if there isn’t an institutionalized justice system or one that people trust, the system will break down.People go around shooting other people and then expect to be forgiven.”
One can apply that same logic to the environment, i.e., to what extent can we get away with abusing the planet without giving anything back? The film examines the recent oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which not only spilled up to 4.9 million barrels of oil into the water, but also prompted BP and the U.S. Coast Guard to order the use of chemical dispersants to break up the oil and send it drifting beneath the surface of the ocean (in other words, out of sight but still there) in perfect bite-sized morsels for fish to eat. The environmental impact of this disaster is still not yet fully comprehended, but it will likely devastate the area for decades, possibly even longer.
This is what Atwood means when she writes: Some debts can’t be repaid with money. “We certainly need to change the way we think about the great big bank of nature,” she says. “Because we’re overdrawn…and with that bank or any bank, the supply is finite. There is not an infinite supply of anything.”