The famous Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood defines the subject of her book “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth” — which originated as the 2008 Massey Lectures in Toronto — as “one of the most worrisome and puzzling things I know: that peculiar nexus where money, narrative or story, and religious belief intersect, often with explosive force.” In a wide-ranging history of debt Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood investigates the many meanings of debt through the ages, from ancient times to the current global financial meltdown. With all that has transpired in the United States in the past few decades many of us wonder: how could we have let such a collapse happen? How old or inevitable is this human pattern of debt? Payback is an imaginative, topical and insightful reconsideration of our ideas of ownership and debt.

Ms. Atwood is a brilliant writer and this particular work is filled with insights that I found most unsettling when I saw Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary version of the story, also titled Payback, which was inspired by Ms. Atwood’s book. (The film and book title should not be confused with the Mel Gibson thriller with the same name.) Baichwal tries to keep up with that writer’s agile mind, in a film that runs 86 minutes long, and thus fleshes out some of her ideas in concrete images and specific stories. But this is precisely where the documentary fails us too. Let me explain.

25pay1-articleLargeMs. Atwood provides commentary and intellectual guidance to Ms. Baichwal (“Manufactured Landscapes,” “Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles”) but the various stories chosen for this film attempt to show how debt can be understood and applied to our modern world. The two really moving and poignant stories include a blood feud in northern Albania and the terrible, slave-like, working conditions of tomato pickers in Florida. The aftermath of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is also disturbing but, at least for me, doesn’t fit the theme of debt quit so convincingly.

Baichwal’s interview subjects include participants and witnesses, and a few expert witnesses, among them the economist Raj Patel, the ecologist William Rees and the sometimes controversial religion writer Karen Armstrong. The testimony provided here is often fascinating, and the stories are gripping, in particular the grim Albanian situation, a land dispute between neighbors bound up in a deep and ancient code of honor and vengeance. This should make Christians ask a lot of hard questions about their view of God and even atonement.

One of the more intriguing elements of the film is the inclusion of Conrad Black’s story (a major white crime scenario) with the debt theme and, more importantly, the questions posed about the failure of the U.S. justice system and the whole notion of “applying one’s debt to society” by serving prison time, a concept I long ago came to hold in serious doubt. Prison reform is a hugely important issue but Christians generally offer little rigorous response to the issue.

But the larger problem with this documentary is that (as one reviewer says) “the film never provides a solid conceptual framework that allows the viewer to see this vendetta, the poisoning of the Gulf and the virtual enslavement of farm workers as meaningful instances of the same thing. Ms. Baichwal sometimes seems to be so absorbed in the details of each case that the viewer is left groping after connections, and ultimately is more puzzled than enlightened.”

Writes the same perceptive critic of this film:


[lack of a conceptual framework] makes the examples seem arbitrary, given the urgency and ubiquity of the film’s major theme in contemporary life (and in most of human existence, according to “Debt: The First 5,000 Years,” a sweeping history of the topic by the anthropologist and anti-corporate activist David Graeber). Ms. Baichwal was not obligated to address the collapse of the Greek economy or the American housing market, nor to wade into the intricacies of predatory lending, capital flight or budgetary accounting. Nor did she have to tackle the role of sacrifice and obligation in the world’s major religions.”

Indeed, this is a chilling and provocative film documentary. For this reason I recommend it, with the noted reservations I have given. But I could not help but feel the movie owed its subject — and thus its audience as well— a good deal more. To compare some of the failures of modern capitalism (and the BP oil spill which is a major problem for sure) with slavery and blood feuds is a stretch, at least for me.

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