Margaret Atwood and Jennifer Baichwal on Their Documentary, ‘Payback’, and the Nature of Debt


Margaret Atwood and Jennifer Baichwal on Their Documentary, ‘Payback’, and the Nature of Debt


Jennifer Baichwal‘s Payback, based on Canadian author Margaret Atwood‘s Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, is an exploration of the everyday implications of debt, as well as a sweeping survey of its inescapable nature in the political, social and environmental climate of today. Atwood’s book, which began as a lecture series in 2008 and soon expanded into a collection of essays, deals with the concepts of creditor and debtor as arbitrary roles, debt in the abstract, and as a casualty of exchange. She also touches upon the moral and political implications. The film illustrates these concepts through five intertwined stories: A never-ending feud between farmers in the mountains of Albania, the repercussions of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, two convicts, Conrad Black and Paul Mohammed, with very different relationships to the justice system, and a coalition of Immokalee workers, picking tomatoes under unjust and exploitative conditions in Florida.

Debt as an abstract thing obviously relates to a thousand different things—and you guys chose very specific subjects for the film.

Atwood: At the core of the whole idea and how we operate as human beings are two concepts and one of them is fairness, and the other one is balance, equilibrium. Fairness seems to be pretty built-in, we come hard-wired for it. If we didn’t believe in fairness or in returning good for good, nobody would ever lend anybody anything. So essential to the notion of borrowing and lending in any way is the concept of fairness, and that you shall return. Equilibrium is also built into the concept of debt, which is based on a scale. That is the core of religious notions. Karmic justice—apparently babies under 2, once they begin to understand narratives, they get quite a lot of satisfaction and pleasure when bad people get their commupance. They like the notion that good is rewarded and badness is punished.
Baichwal: And the book, which was originally a lecture series, is an exploration of what happens when the equilibrium is broken, in various contexts. When I was reading it, I was faced with this conundrum of how do you intelligently translate this rich, open-ended exploration into the medium of film in an intelligent way. There are lots of documentaries whose point is to advance a thesis. When I was reading the book I was thinking, ‘how do I get these ideas across?’ and at the same time not fall into a didactic argument, I thought, the only way to make the ideas come alive was to root them in real stories.

The stories I chose explore various aspects that Margaret explores in the book: moral debt, legal debt, environmental debt, economic debt. The coalition of Immokalee workers are at the bottom of an economic system, and that implicates all of us who eat the tomatoes they pick. Revenge and vengeance culture in Albania, the idea of a blood feud where you have this symbiotic relationship of creditor and debtor. For Conrad Black and Paul Mohammed, the question of what does it mean to pay your debt to society, and what does that even mean—here’s somebody, Conrad Black, who maintains his innocence, and Paul Mohammed, who is filled with remorse for what he’s done, but the odds are that he’ll probably offend again and go back to jail. What does that mean? The stories were really meant to root abstract ideas in real situations, which seemed to me a more filmic way of translating it into film.

With the story about the BP oil spill, and also with the Albanian farmers, you have no idea who’s to blame. But blame isn’t really the question.

Atwood: Because you have no idea who’s telling the truth. It’s like any law trial you’ve ever heard about. Because of course this side is going to tell the best story about themselves they can, and so is this side.

Baichwal: There’s lots of feuds in the mountains of Albania, and when we were doing interviews a lot of cases felt like they had a clear favorite for truth, where it would be quite easy to come down on one side or the other. Here it wasn’t clear who was telling the truth, you could see how something like this could become a totally intractable situation with no resolution in sight, and indeed, there’s still a feud.
It’s strange to think of people operating on an honor basis like that.

Baichwal: But Margaret and I were talking about this—how far you have to scratch a civilized  person before you get down to that primal level—and I don’t think you have to scratch very far. Because if somebody did something to my kids, I’d kill them. I feel like I’d try to kill them, if they hurt them. I mean, that immediately comes up in me. Hopefully some kind of rational impulse would take over, but I’m not sure it would.
Atwood: Where criminal justice systems came from was to avoid this whole, ‘I kill you, they kill me, they kill them,’ and it evolves onto the distant cousins,

Baichwal: Exactly. But there’s no credible justice system. That’s why the code flourishes. There’s no law up there. As Louise Arbor says, when you put your faith in the state, that the state has to take on whatever was the wrong done to you and to deal with it in the right way, that’s actually quite an incredible leap of faith to take. It has to work properly. People think the government and the police are corrupt. And maybe they are.
Atwood: It’s in Huckleberry Finn.

That’s a super American thing.

Baichwal: In these isolated places.

Atwood: Isolated places where you can’t trust the justice system to do what you think is right. I have a hilarious story from Paulette Giles, who’s from there. She had an aunt who married from outside the community, a guy from the lowlands. They didn’t get on. She kept hogs, and when they were having a fight he would let her hogs out and they would run into the swamp, and hogs are quite slippery and smart, so it would take her a lot of time to round them all up. So finally she said to him ‘if you let my hogs out one more time, I’m going to kill you.’ And he let her hogs out one more time, and she killed him. She shot him through a closed-screen door. And there was a trial, the jury members were all her relatives, and they brought in a verdict of suicide. Because she told him she was going to kill him if he let them out, he let them out, it was suicide!
He wanted it.

Baichwal: I kind of like that law.

Atwood: It was the only case of suicide by being shot through a screen door. That’s what they thought was right.

That’s the plot of every western. ‘The cops aren’t gonna do it right!’

Atwood: Except not to that absurdist point. The first Western was really The Virginian by Owen Wister, and that’s the plot.

Baichwal: “Hate keeps a man alive”. Who said that?

Sounds like Clint Eastwood.

Baichwal: It does.

It’s fertile territory, that whole thing.

Atwood: Well you know, from going to public school, just how fertile it is. Or anybody who’s ever had siblings. ‘He kicked me, I kicked him back!’

Baichwal: That’s another example of why we have this thing about fairness. As Margaret said, no one would ever lend anything if they didn’t have any expectation of getting it back. So we are built on this idea that there will be give and take, and when you think about the Occupy movement for example, it’s such a perfect example of people who are just bearing witness to a decades-long disequilibrium that has become more and more and more pronounced. How many people are we talking about that are benefitting from this in that way, versus everybody else, the 99%? How can that even remotely be considered okay? I think that as a bearing witness, it has been an extremely powerful movement.
Atwood: I said this recently in a piece I did for the Financial Times: What were the conditions before the French revolution? France was in debt because they had overspent on a foreign war. Number two, the country is ruled by a small group of people who, number three, arrange the law to exempt themselves from having to actually pay any of this, and number four, then taxed all of the people below them who were already overtaxed, and number five, then the price of bread went up. And then number six, the people at the top were inflexible. They wanted to keep things the way they were because it was to their advantage and they would not move.

Baichwal: It sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?

Scarily familiar.

Atwood: What we have now which was not in effect then is that the methods of social control are much more absolute. So although they had spies then, they didn’t have nearly our caliber of spies. Although they had weapons, they didn’t have our weapons. Although they had surveillance methods then, they didn’t have nearly our surveillance methods. But push comes to shove, you come to that moment where the troops come to fire on the populace.
That’s what happened when the wall went down. That’s what happened when the USSR dissolved. But you can’t have any sort of change like that unless there’s widespread public support, which comes from widespread public discontent. And I would say in this country that that discontent is not widespread. Because everybody thinks, ‘we’ll get out of it, we can make a few fixes, it’s not bad yet’ and so forth. When it may really kick in is when the weather gets even weirder than it is at the moment, and people do not have the money to rebuild.

Payback will run at Film Forum through May 8th.