Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The concept of debt - well beyond the constraints of cash - provides the backdrop for Jennifer Baichwal's documentary, which takes Margaret Atwood's book of essays Payback: Debt And The Shadow Side Of Wealth as its inspiration. This is not a film about the banking crash or the housing crisis, but a more philosophical consideration of debt in its much wider and less punative definition. Think less about owing somebody something than of being indebted to them.

The subjects range from an eye-for-an-eye Albanian feud, which sees one family confined to their home as a 'prison' over their blood debt, to the concept of payback as it applies to those who fell foul of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and how the nature of debt can be applied to migrant farm workers in the US. There is also a robust argument that the idea of criminals being able to move on after "paying their debt to society" has become little more than lip-service in a world that won't let misdemeanors be forgotten.

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Atwood's lectures on the subject are woven through the stories, as she outlines the more academic aspects, while talking heads, including economist Raj Patel and celebrity ex-con Conrad Black, offer their thoughts on the wrongs and rights of it all. Atwood perhaps puts it most succinctly when she says: "How we think about it changes how it works." This is debt in the abstract, where our moral obligations can often be more important in creating a fairer society than fiscal considerations.

While the film is strong in parts - footage of the oil slick in the gulf is shocking, the testimony of those on both sides of the Albanian feud hard-hitting - it suffers from trying to cover so much ground. Baichwal's previous film Manufactured Landscapes tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to open out Edward Burtynsky's photos to wider consideration and here she again attempts to get beyond words on the page yet never manages to present a fully fleshed out argument. There is, of course, nothing wrong with raising questions in the minds of an audience but her assertions feel fragmented and scattergun. There is the potential for three good documentaries within the fabric of this film but the attempt to cover so much ground leaves each pool of argument too shallow for comfort, frequently putting you in mind of much better single-issue documentaries that were more informative on their chosen subject.

Reviewed on: 25 Nov 2012
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Consideration of debt based on the essays of Margaret Atwood.
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Director: Jennifer Baichwal

Writer: Matthew K Hacker

Starring: Kent Fields

Year: 2011

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: US


Sundance 2012

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