Movie Review: Jennifer Baichwal’s PAYBACK on DVD

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paybackposterUsing Margaret Atwood’s fascinating treatise entitled Payback: Debt And The Shadow Side of Wealth as a point of departure, acclaimed Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal engages a compelling cast of renown commentators to expound on the notion of debt and its wide range of implications about human civilization and its future.

Expounding on the Notion of Debt

The wise and thought provoking Atwood participated extensively in the film’s production. She’s credited as a co-writer with Baichwal, and appears frequently on camera, guiding the film’s wide ranging considerations about the concept of debt by reading passages from her book, or in voice over narration, while she’s sitting at her computer and writing.

Joining Atwood on the film’s roster of fascinating commentators are Raj Patel, Eric Schlosser, Louise Arbour, and Karen Armstrong, the others who appear on camera. speaking about the different facets of debt: debt to society, debt to the environment and revenge, among others.

Stories Used As Compelling Illustrations

But, as elucidating as these pundits’ comments may be, the film doesn’t rely exclusively on them to investigate its subject. Baichwal integrates into the discussion a variety of illustrative incidents that exemplify the extent to which the notion of debt impacts the lives of individuals and society at large.


The film opens with the story of an Albanian man who has not been able to leave his house for years because, according to tribal tradition, home is the only place he is safe from being attacked and killed by an angry neighbor still seeking revenge for something that happened long ago. The once prosperous man is now unable to provide for his family. His wife and children have become victims of his situation. Entering the man’s home turf and visiting with the revenge-seeker in a local eatery, Baichwal presents both sides of this ongoing family feud, showing that attempts to apologize and/or other forms of negotiation do not seem to be viable solutions. The ‘debtor,’ who believes the revenge is necessary to restore his honor, is unyielding, although his family and friends urge him to forgive and forget and get on with life.


At the other end of the spectrum, Baichwal tells the tale of Conrad Black, the Canadian media mogul and bon vivant who was convicted of massive fraud and sentenced to imprisonment — part of it under house arrest, where Baichwal finds him — which gives him a lot of time to contemplate the notion of paying one’s debt to society. An interesting note is that Black’s conviction on all but one minor charge were overturned by a superior court, giving his comments an interesting twist and very special spin.

The Environment

Another tale takes us to the Gulf of Mexico and the struggle to recover from the oil spills that contaminated the sea, killed wildlife and destroyed a way of life. The extent of the disaster is shown through exquisite aerial footage of the sea where clean and clear blue water is easily distinguishable from muddy-looking brown and gray contaminated water, and with close up shots of oil-coated birds no longer capable of flight. Through the eyes of local citizens whose lives have been forever changed by the oil spill, we’re lead to consider our human debt to the environment.

Employer and Convict

Other stories involve a Florida farm owner who signs on to seek better work conditions and pay for immigrant tomato pickers, and a reformed drug addict, thief and repeat inmate who can’t shake the personal guilt he feels from having traumatized an elderly victim.

The stories and on camera interviews are interwoven seamlessly. The cinematography is beautiful. The editing is brilliant. Payback is a profound and challenging investigation of the notion of debt and how it impacts all of us.

Film and DVD Details:

Title: Payback
Director: Jennifer Baichwal

Distribution: Zeitgeistʼs DVD Edition of Payback features a High-Definition master, enhanced for widescreen viewing. DVD extras include a Q&A with Atwood and Baichwal; additional scenes with Atwood and Jane Goodall; U.S. theatrical trailer; 5.1 and stereo soundtracks; and English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired. Released 2012 • 86 mins • Canada • Color • In English, Spanish and Albanian with English subtitles • 16:9 aspect ratio • Not Rated • Cat no. Z1144 • UPC 795975114431 • DVD SRP $29.99

U.S. Theatrical Release Date: April 25, 2012
Running Time: 82 mins.
Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
Locations: Canada, Albania, Gulf of Mexico and other USA locations.
Language: English, Spanish, Albanian dialogue, with English subtitles
Production Country: Canada
Production Company: National Film Board of Canada (NFB)

Official Website

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