Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2012's Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth directed by Jennifer Baichwal.
Sacks: Well, Elkin, I think we needed this one. After watching a series of documentaries that felt a bit unprofessional and unfinished, we finally have chosen a documentary that's an extremely professional and thought-provoking look at a complex philosophical issue.
Jennifer Baichwal's Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth is a product of the National Film Board of Canada and is adapted from a book by the great Margaret Atwood, one of the finest and most interesting writers of our time and a true Canadian national treasure. And, as expected based on its pedigree, this film does not disappoint on any level.
First of all, I have to say that Payback is beautifully filmed. The cinematography on this project is really wonderful – and again a very nice change from the more amateurish videography we've seen recently. The film takes us from the Western State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania all the way to the lands of Northern Albania to explore its concepts of debt, stopping along the way to explore places like migrant farmland in Florida, the Gulf Coast in the wake of the BP oil spill, environmental activism in British Columbia and a very interesting lecture hall in Newfoundland.
Secondly, I was fascinated by how intellectually curious this movie is. It's ambitious not just in its geographical diversity but in director Baichwal's solemn and thoughtful approach to respecting the thoughts and opinions of the people that she presents. There's a wonderful sense of intelligent people sharing intelligent thoughts that can literally change the way that one perceives the world. I came out of this movie with a tremendous number of philosophical ideas to explore – ideas I hope we can dig into as this essay goes on, Elkin, because that's one of the truly wonderful joys of doing this column with you.
And thirdly, and perhaps most of all, I was fascinated by the different ideas of what it means to be in debt in our world. As a man with a mortgage and car payments and all the other bills of normal middle class bourgeois life, I'm used to thinking of that prosaic existence as being all would up in debt. But this film stays doggedly away from the easy topics to explore on this topic. Instead Payback explores much more complex topics around the concept of debt: blood debt based on murder, revenge and tradition; the debt to society when one commits a crime; the debt of a criminal to the people that he robs; the debt of mankind to the planet that we continue to ravage.
At the core of this film, Atwood and Baichwal explore the idea that debt is a philosophical condition as well as a financial condition, and that the way we respond to debt in punitive ways that trap us all behind walls of obligation that are as entrapping as there are illusory.
So while this movie has its flaws – I'm sure we'll dig into the fact that the film's scope seems a bit too broad to allow it to fully explore all the stories that Baichwal takes on – it also is a welcome philosophical exploration for a cold winter's night.
Elkin: This documentary did serve as a nice break from the mundane slog fest of the films we've been reviewing lately. It was sort of an intellectual espresso compared to the Fresca of our previous outings.
Because this is a film about an idea, not an event or a person, and, as you stated above, Sacks, it's one of those BIG ideas that is part of the fundamental social construct we have built around ourselves as humans needing to function among other humans.
Like you, I initially entered the world of this documentary thinking it would be a film about the consequences of what we as capitalists most often associate with the word “debt” – a financial obligation that adds a layer of consideration to our every monetary decision. But this is Margaret Atwood we are talking about, and, while this notion flits around the peripheral in her considerations of this topic, she is more concerned with the political and social aspects of the idea of debt – she is concerned with the idea of indebtedness, or as economist and writer Raj Patel frames it in the film, the idea of “reparation” or the making of amends.
Ultimately this is a documentary that pursues the idea of forgiveness, or how we, as social beings, are able to build a bridge between the past and the future and continue to live together.
Shit happens. We are selfish, greedy, emotional, knee-jerking bags of ego who, if left unfettered, will do horrific things to each other in order to promote ourselves further along the social pecking order, be it in pursuit of power, money, sex or idolatry. Because of this, we have a propensity to stomp on those in our way or treat those below us as cobblestones laid along our path. We do things to each other and, in that process, cause psychic scars to form, ideas of revenge to be put in place, and create a sense of being “owed.”
Along this journey we accumulate debt. It is the kind of debt that is oftentimes easily pushed aside, especially when it is indirect debt, like the kind owed to the Florida tomato pickers, or the kind of dealt with punitively by the state, incarcerating those who break the agreed upon social contract. But Atwood and this film both claim that this pushing aside or the punitive action do little to pay off the actual debt.
I agree with you Sacks that this film does take on almost too much in pursuit of this idea, but a more narrow focus would limit the philosophical implications of its thesis. This film demands that we question the price of our actions and our choices. It forces us to ponder the question of psychic debt and how we continue to live together in an increasingly complex global social order. Ultimately it points to the concepts of redemption and freedom and it suggests that the only way we can ever really sing that song is through developing a greater empathy for the world and its people around us.
Perhaps Walt Whitman said it best in the opening lines of Song of Myself:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
Sacks: Way to quote Whitman perfectly, my friend the English teacher!
So let's at least look in a bit more depth at some of the ideas explored in this film, though it's a bit hard to figure out where to start.
Hmm, or does my statement give us a good place to start?
If we take as this film's thesis that debt is inherent in human society as a given, that we are in fact born with an ecological debt to the planet simply as a member of a wealthy nation, then what are we to do with that informat
ion? And if we are in debt to those who make our nice American lives so good, to the poor virtual slaves who pick our tomatoes or who assemble our iPhones, then what should our response be to that debt?
Because as Americans we are really kind of discouraged from considering our psychic debts. Our culture encourages us to consume, consume, consume, of course; any high school student can write a pretty insightful essay on the way that our media encourage the sort of endless consumption that leads to the Deepwater Horizon disaster or super-storm Sandy.
But what this film asks us to consider is something a bit deeper. It asks us to consider our footprints. It asks us to consider our impact, our debt, our relationship with each other and with the world in a way that is more aware, more cognizant of what we are doing, of the way that the financial and ecological systems work together and how they fit into an immensely large, incredibly complex world that is almost impossibly to fully consume.
Payback demands that we consider a response, but I'm still trying to synthesize my response to the ideas it expresses, even after a week. I literally can't be aware of how everything is created or how I live in response to my society. I want to do what I can do to help make our world to be a better place, but there's a kind of awareness overload, a feeling that the size and scope of problems that we're living with are so immense and so intractable that it's hard to really know how to respond to them. When BP is seeming to try to avoid $200 billion in damages from the oil spill, what can I do aside from being outraged?
Elkin, can you help me here? Am I missing the central point of this film or are you as lost as I am about how to respond? Is it possible that in its beautiful scope and wonderful cinematography, that Payback is perhaps too large in scope to really synthesize? Should I best see it as the sort of thing that sits in the back of my mind as I go about my daily life and not worry too much about my debt to this film to carry its messages ahead in my life? What would Margaret Atwood want me to do?
Elkin: Well, Sacks, I can't speak for Atwood, but I can speak for myself after viewing Payback. I was left with the sense that the this film wanted to remind me of the fact that my very existence incurs an obligation to my fellow earth citizens for a variety of offenses, as well as debt to them for every comfort I can eke out.
But you ask what does the film want us to do with this knowledge? I think it wants us to acknowledge our debt on both the global and local scale, decide if this is indeed debt we want to continue to incur, decide how we can begin to pay it back, and then live our lives accordingly.
As the film points out, from Confucius to Christ, we are constantly admonished by those who wish us a moral existence to acknowledge the humanity of our fellow man, foster a true empathy, and “So in everything, do unto others what you would have them do unto you.”
That's the ideal, right? It's where we as a species need to direct our energies if we want to have any sort of continued place on the planet. We should gauge our actions as to the effect, not to the gain, and trust in the cosmic law of reciprocity, that all our good deeds come back to us tenfold. We have the examples of what to do, and we idealize them or even bestow godhood upon them.
Seems like a pretty straightforward message to me, and one that we all know in the back of our minds.
But it's not that simple, is it? The film reveals that as we are creatures with a survival instinct, a sex drive and a will to power. The truly altruistic and empathic is the exception rather than the rule. In America especially culture demands dwelling internally instead of embracing the masses. Capitalism itself is predicated on growth and inequality.
You ask what can one man do, Sacks. This documentary wants to foster some sort of utopian revolution where we all wake up and acknowledge our debt. Atwood herself even uses the character of Scrooge in which to make this point, where Scrooge wakes up and becomes an environmentalist and a feeder of the poor.
I guess this kind of stuff does have to start with the individual.
It's got to start somewhere.
Why not you? Why not me?
What's stopping us?
Sacks: Why not us, indeed, Elkin. Why not us?
Despite all the horrors in the world – icebergs melting, children massacred, injustice happening to good people every day of their lives – I'm an optimist. I'm an optimist about the human spirit. I'm an optimist that mankind can learn from our most horrible mistakes. I'm an optimist that your children and my children will be just that much more sensitized to the problems that they inherit, yes, from their callous parents. I believe that we are slowly learning the lessons that Atwood and her cohorts discuss in this movie.
Will we wake up like Scrooge on Christmas Morning and repent of our sins? I'm not optimistic enough to believe that a great 19th century novel is a template for society. But I believe that things are slowly, inexorably, getting better.
God bless us, every one.