Demanding 'Payback' That May Never Come

Apr 26, 2012

"Crime doesn't pay" is one of the hopeful cliches Margaret Atwood invokes in her essay collection Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth.

Of course it does, filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal shows in Payback, a documentary that riffs on Atwood's themes. But crime doesn't always pay, and perhaps it will pay less well in the future. At least that's the suggestion made by the on-screen commentators who expand on Atwood's original theme.

Like the recent Surviving Progress — in which Atwood appears — Payback is a documentary based on a lecture in a series co-sponsored by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Corporate greed and environmental degradation are high on the movie's agenda. But Atwood and Baichwal (whose Manufactured Landscapes visited sites of monumental environmental pillage) also address matters of individual responsibility.

Although most of the movie was shot in Canada or the United States, it opens in rural Albania, where revenge proceeds according to the Kanun, an ancient code. We meet representatives of two families whose land dispute escalated to a shooting. The two antagonists disagree on what happened, but the victim's wounds appear indisputable. Now the shooter cannot leave his home, since his enemy has the right to kill him should he encounter him in public.

This simple eye-for-an-eye creed leads to more complicated matters of justice, including the conduct of oil giant BP during the 2010 Gulf Coast oil spill and Pacific Tomato Growers' treatment of immigrant workers in Florida. (Subcontractors there used to keep pickers as actual slaves, manacled to the walls of trailers when not speedily snatching fruit for salad bars and fast-food joints.)

On a more personal level, a longtime drug addict and thief tries to compensate emotionally a woman he terrified in a robbery. And Canada's former media mogul Conrad Black, who did time in the U.S. for fraud, discusses what he learned from being in what he admits was a fairly comfy prison.

Black is joined by others who have a less direct link to the idea of "paying your debt to society." These include economist Raj Patel, religion scholar Karen Armstrong, ecologist William Rees and Gulf Coast "baykeeper" Casi Callaway.

At one point, Atwood reads a dictionary definition of "revenge," musing on the possible implications of its Latin roots. Such word games don't really lead anywhere, however. When meanings can be remade by PR spin masters, etymology hardly matters.

Ultimately, this intriguing but scattershot movie turns on the incompatibility of two worldviews — the corporate-financial vs. the environmental-spiritual. To BP, spending as little as possible to clean the Gulf is a sacred obligation; every penny that can be diverted to profit must be. To the company's critics, ownership of natural resources is a fiction, and every person is perpetually in debt to the Earth for its bounty.

Rees, photographed while bobbling in a kayak, says that humanity maintains an unpayable "ecological deficit." Because the number of people has surpassed the planet's carrying capacity, he argues, "capitalism has run its course." Executives at BP and Pacific Tomato Growers probably don't agree. In short, a businessman's "profit" is an ecologist's "debt." Until they agree which term is correct, payback will be impossible.

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