Director Jennifer Baichwal's Payback uses legendary author Margaret Atwood's Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth to explore the many facets of debt. Culling excerpts from Atwood's lecture appearances and weaving fascinating stories of individuals and corporations experiencing various forms of indebtedness, Baichwal takes viewers on a journey through the complicated and oft overlooked forms of debt that exist within society. The film leaves viewers with no real conclusions, but challenges us to question assumptions about our own debts to each other and to our planet. Boxoffice recently caught up with Baichwal to discuss her thought-provoking new film.
Did you have a general idea of what clips of Margaret Atwood you wanted to include in the film, or during the editing process did you play around with different scenes?
Well, that's interesting because I spent a lot of time struggling with how Margaret should be in the film. And it's this question—which I also grappled with in Manufactured Landscapes—which is, is she a subject or is she an author? In Manufactured Landscapes, Edward Burtynsky was the author of what we were looking at. And I didn't want him to be a subject in the conventional sense, like the darkroom scene with the photographer, you know, that kind of thing. And this case was kind of the same thing. It was, how can she intelligently be an author? I could have just interviewed her, like, "Why did you write this book?" and "Where did you come up with these ideas?" and I could have asked her to talk about why she wrote it, and that just felt wrong to me. We did try an interview with her, and we talked about different things that I found fascinating in the book, but even as I was doing it I knew it wasn't the right way for her to be in the film.
I thought about that for awhile, and I thought, well, she's a writer and writers are writers for a reason, so, I should go back to the text again. I kept reading and rereading the text, and trying to figure out a way for the text to be intelligently in the film, and then I thought, no, these words were spoken before they were written down. She wrote them, but then, it was a lecture, and they do have this conversational tone. So I went back to the lectures and when I started listening to the lectures I found the way that I thought she should be in the film. Everything that you hear from her is either her preparing for a lecture, which is what she was doing when she was in her hotel room writing, or it's from the lectures themselves that she was giving in front of hundreds of people.
I didn't decide which aspects to use until after I had edited the stories together. I was looking for these contextualizing words from her that would not tell you how to think about something or say this is why we're looking at this, but rather, would give you a sense that this is a different perspective. So I looked for those parts in the lectures. I listened and listened and found those parts that I thought were contextualizing to the stories.
How did you find the different stories used in the film?
Well, I wrote the treatment for the film for about a year. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether it could be made into a film because it's an incredible book, it's a rich exploration, but it's not immediately obvious as a film. I was thinking "Oh gosh, how can I do this?" For awhile I was thinking I'd ask the Brothers Quay to do these weird little animated sequences that could illustrate what a sin eater is, for example, or something like that. And I'm actually kind of sad that that didn't happen because it would have been interesting. It wasn't until I realized that if I could not come up with real stories of people living with indebtedness in one way or another that it wouldn't work as a film, and that's when I started looking for these stories.
I wanted to exemplify loosely different aspects, like moral, financial, legal, and environmental, which are very broadly the themes that she discusses in the book. I wanted to find stories that related to those themes, and ones that might not be obvious. Like the financial one, I could have followed a debt collector, and I could have followed someone who was deeply in debt or going bankrupt or getting their mortgage foreclosed. All of which may have been absolutely fine and good stories, but I wanted to make it a little bit more so that it pointed to the particular and bigger picture at the same time. Of course, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the tomato pickers, are at the bottom of an economic system that we all assent to by living here. There is a bottom and they're the bottom, and that's what that look likes. So that is a very particular situation of workers, and actual real slavery cases that have happened in the last fifty years, in the last twenty five years, in the United States. But also, it's illustrative of a bigger issue that we have, which is almost that that role in this economic system, that it's necessary. There has to be somebody who is treated like that, which I think is untenable, obviously.
So, with the Albanian families, I was trying to think about vengeance and revenge and is this really something that is that far away from all of us? How far do we have to reach down to get to that aspect of ourselves? And I was reading an article in the New York Times about a boy who was part of a feud and had been isolated in his home because he was part of a feud. And I thought that's really interesting, and we went to Albania and talked to a number of families, and this story was interesting to me mostly because I could see both sides of it. It wasn't like one person was absolutely right and the other was absolutely wrong. It was a complicated situation. And I'd be with one family and going "I can't believe you're in this situation," and then I'd go to the other family and be saying "It's incredible. I can't believe he shot you." I felt for both sides. I could see their perspectives, and I was looking for something like that. So, the stories came about that way.
It's really easy to see in the film the negative consequences of indebtedness, and particularly for me the families in Albania really stuck out in my mind. What about positive outcomes of debt? Is that possible?
Well, I don't think that it's ever possible to be debt free, really. We are a social species; we are much more cooperative than we are competitive if you look historically at how humans have thrived, or any social species has survived, it has been more through cooperation than competition. We are enmeshed in these relationships of reciprocal altruism where you do me a favor, I do you a favor, you owe me one, I owe you one. Those are very delicate balances. Whenever I think about how complex they are in everybody's daily lives, you know. Somebody opens the door for you and you say "Thank you," and if you don't say "Thank you" then you owe them something, right? You owe them that thank you. And if I do that for someone and they don't say "Thank you" then I get a little pissed off. So, I don't think the goal is to become free of debt.
In the story of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which I found to be extraordinary—we didn't know this was going to happen when we started filming there, we filmed over the course a year, year and a half, and the owner of Pacific Tomato Growers just decided to payback. He walked into their office and, and this was a situation where people from the Coalition could not even stand on the other side of the street from the entrance to these tomato farms because this was such an adversarial relationship, and he walks in their center and says, "I'm here with an open heart." Now that's a story of paying back which is extraordinary. It is one individual with a conscience and it's had enormous repercussions for that industry. So that gives me a lot of hope.
That was really a moving moment in the film to see them be able to reach that.
Yeah it was a pretty extraordinary—now that is not to say that there is still a long way to go. In those situations certainly more farms have implemented the Fair Food Agreement, but it also is about buyers, right? The biggest supermarket chains, the fast food chains that buy the tomatoes, are the ones that dictate as well the price, and there are still big holdouts. I don't know if you have heard of Publix supermarkets. Do they exist outside of Florida? It's the biggest Florida chain.
I've heard of them, but there aren't any where I live.
Yeah. They still have not signed the Fair Food Agreement, and they're in Florida. It's extraordinary that they have not done it. I mean there's still a lot to fight about, but that was a real watershed moment.
Towards the end of the film we see people reading from the text of Payback and talking about everything that we possess is borrowed, even our bodies are borrowed. Why do you think that's an important concept for us to recognize?
Well, I think humans think of themselves as distinct from the ecosystems we live in instead of as very much a part of them. We sort of act as though we're distinct from them, which then leads to accidents like the Gulf oil spill. But when we die, we return to the earth. Every atom of us has been recycled, you can say, or reincarnated in some way. The air that we breathe is the air that has been part of this atmosphere since the beginning of the earth. There's no new air. So, we are a part of a vast and complex system, and I think that when you recognize that when Scrooge says "Everything I have is only borrowed and I'm going back to the earth in some way," I think it gives you a kind of humility about how you live in the world and how you live with other people and other species.
With the film being as open ended as it is what do you hope your audience will take away from it?
I don't think any of our films try to extend a particular thesis. They more try to create a space, as you said in the beginning, to think about something in a different way, to open up consciousness about something. For me that's very valuable because in a way the thesis of the film is what Margaret says at the beginning and end, that debt is a mental construct and how we think about it changes how it works. If it really is that simple, if we think about things a little bit differently, like the owner of Pacific Tomato Growers did, look at what can change. So, all I want is for viewers to be engaged with the ideas and to have something open up so that they can think about debt differently. For example, money is a symbol of exchange. On its own it is meaningless. It only is meaningful because you and I agree that it is when we are entering an exchange with each other. And I think that it is useful to remember things like that. So I do hope that the film just opens up people's ideas about what debt is and what we owe.