Payback: Sundance Film Review


World Documentary Competition

Drone-on, talking-heads tedium on a book of Margaret Atwood essays.

Filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal puts a big-screen spin on Margaret Atwood's book of essays about systems of wealth, justice and reparation.

PARK CITY – A philosophical static-cinematic on the nature of indebtedness, namely how a wrong that can not be redressed by financial compensation be determined, Payback is a desultory documentary playing here in the World Cinema Documentary Competition. In theatrical terms, the term "payback" could be resolved for this film via refund from theater managers to those who have tried to sit through this hocus-opus.

Based on Canadian writer/lecturer Margaret Atwood's book of essays on justice and reparation, the film endeavors to breathe life into weighty intellectual/philosophical thought. Cinematically, that's a daunting task and writer/director Jennifer Baichwal has thoughtfully endeavored to put a human face on a scholarly screed.

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Interweaving clips of international injustice – a murder in Albania, lack of migrant-worker rights, oil-spill victims – Baichwal creates a mosaic that shows unjust suffering caused by the callous acts of others. In addition, she documents the individual pain of those wronged: the lifelong physical disability and pain of a farmer in Albania where an ancient eye-for-an-eye code addresses what most nations would resolve via a torts system. 

In the case of the Gulf Coast oil spill, she delineates how BP, basically, washed its hands of the disaster in a series of disingenuous p.r/tax-credit shenanigans, while lives went down the drain for families and businesses on the coast.

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Politically, this National Film Board of Canada film is decidedly left-wing; those from the right may howl, but the best of documentaries have a strong point of view. In this case, the aesthetics are so banal that the film should even irk liberals. Conservatives might introduce it as Exhibit A in their case against government-grant propelled “art.”

Aesthetically, it's desultory. Talking-heads rants and ruminations are further stultified by the amateurish aesthetics. Visually, zooms, pans and filler moments (shots of the Albanian's farm animals, etc.) enervate the message. Most annoying, the dour music grates throughout; its hollow grinding,  we'd guess, is an attempt to impart profundity.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, World Cinema Documentary Competition
Production company: National Film Board of Canada
Director/screenwriter: Jennifer Baichwal
Producer: Ravida Din
Director of photography: Nicholas de Pencier
Music: Martin TielliEditor: Nick Hector
No rating,  82 minutes