What do the plight of exploited migrant workers in Immokalee, Florida; the failed rehabilitation of a prison inmate; an Albanian blood feud; and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill have in common? In Jennifer Baichwal’s persuasive doc based on Margaret Atwood’s nonfiction book of the same name, they’re all proffered as examples of the concepts of debt, justice and forgiveness in action. Using a lecture delivered by Atwood as the runny glue holding together these disparate case studies, Payback expands that first element to its widest cosmic applications, as something an individual owes others, society or the planet at large.
While the movie occasionally stretches too far to maintain thematic coherence, its momentum is sustained by the urgency of its case studies, as well as the sense of outrage at the injustices perpetuated at the behest of powerful monetary interests and its striking imagery. (The periodic tracking shots through the decrepit remains of the shuttered Eastern State Penitentiary, one of the first jails to envision imprisonment as an instrument of reform, are stunning.) Despite trying to fit both the ancient Albanian Kanun legal code and the fate of the environment on the same procrustean bed, Baichwal’s free-flowing essay film stands as a thoughtful and compelling meditation on global interconnectivity—and an urgent call for global accountability.
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