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. InsteadPayback 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.