Jennifer Baichwal, Payback
Jennifer Baichwal is an accomplished Canadian filmmaker whose ever-searching documentaries have taken up such diverse subjects as photography (The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia), literary biography (Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles), the metaphysics of lightning strikes (Act of God), and the devastating underside of mass Western consumption (Manufactured Landscapes). In her latest film, Payback, loosely based on the prolific Booker Prize–winning author Margaret Atwood’s book-length study of debt as a structuring principle of life, language, and contemporary culture (the subtitle for her tome is The Shadow Side of Wealth), Baichwal investigates the disparate ways in which the idea of indebtedness has come to define everything from blood feuds to labor practices, prison terms to environmental clean-up efforts.
What does it mean to say we “owe” someone? How are debts created? Under what conditions do we seek justice or retribution, or attempt to “pay back” the harm we have done? These are questions that grow out of Atwood’s own meditative lectures on the topic, which Baichwal explores in rich narrative threads (a bid for nonabusive working conditions by Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers; a penitent convict; an Albanian man imprisoned for years in his home by an ancient custom) illustrating some of her basic principles and sagaciously fanciful strands of thinking. Other voices – former Hollinger International media magnate Conrad Black, convicted of fraud in 2007, religion scholar Karen Armstrong, and environmental activist William Rees, most notably – weigh in as well on some of the political and philosophical ramifications of how notions of debt operate in society, for better and worse. Revisiting the BP oil spill, for instance, Baichwal establishes the ways in which corporate attempts to assume responsibility for the ecological hazards of doing business — in this case, the wreckage of an entire coastal ecosystem and the communities that depend on it for their livelihood — can seem so hauntingly stale and cynical. Payback, which debuted at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, gets at these and other issues in a roundabout way, allowing the stories to commingle and cross-pollinate without advancing a hard case about justice or the greater social good so much as hinting that these notions are vital to our lives and worth thinking about in the hope that we can find better resolutions to the world’s ethical conundrums.
Filmmaker spoke with Baichwal about the poetics of debt, Atwood’s speculative fiction, and the aesthetics of documentary. Payback opens today at Film Forum.
Filmmaker: As a filmmaker, you tend to approach things elliptically, or from a decidedly indirect position. What drives you away from polemics?
Baichwal: It’s true. I’m trying to open up a space to think rather than advance a particular position. I studied philosophy and religion, and I don’t think there’s a lot of black and white or certainty in the world. I’m quite comfortable living with ambiguity, because ambiguity is complexity. I feel as though my work echoes that in the sense that I myself am often not sure what I think [about my subject] when I make a film. The True Meaning of Pictures, which is about photographer Shelby Lee Adams’s work, is a film about the problem of representation. I wanted to make that film because I was fascinated by Adams’s work, which is controversial, but I didn’t know going in what I thought about it. In some ways, I still don’t know what side I come down on. So I try to take a viewer to the place where I am.
Filmmaker: That echoes something Margaret Atwood says in Payback. Her idea is that since debt is a conceptual construct, how we think about it changes how it works. It means there aren’t any straightforward ways to grasp it.
Baichwal: Yes. Absolutely. In a way, that’s the thesis statement of the film. The book itself is dense and chatty at the same time. It manages to have a conversational tone because it was originally a lecture series. The book feels like a riff on everything that debt could be, and that’s a broad exploration. She’s a brilliant person and a deep thinker, so you go with her on this ride. You start thinking about money, for instance, which is meaningless, frankly. Money is simply a symbol of how we exchange things. I sometimes think it’s useful to step back from things we think we know. If you look at them from a different perspective, they change.
Filmmaker: That word “debt” is in our everyday consciousness via the news, especially in the past four years, given the global financial crisis. Nations have massive debts that are strangling their economies. An entire strata of the Wall Street banking industry robbed us blind and have not, so to speak, paid their debt to society, nor will they. Why did you elect not to take on that particular current?
Baichwal: Well, I’m sure you’ve seen as many docs as I have about the financial meltdown and the debt crisis. For me, documentary filmmaking is not a journalistic endeavor. I like [those that have] a straightforward investigative approach, I just don’t think I’d be very good at [making] them. I tend to be fascinated by the cul de sacs and details as much as by the main road. There’s no question that all of that is vital and happening now, but I choose a financial story about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. In the economic model we all assent to here in North America and Europe, there is always somebody at the bottom—and this what the bottom looks like. Manufactured Landscapes tried to connect us to things we’re responsible for that we would never normally see: the factories, the slag heaps and recycling yards. In this case, I thought it would be interesting [to point out] that this [abuse] not only exists, but is considered a normal part of doing business. I think that’s totally unacceptable. So it was a different way of pointing to all that greed and rapaciousness — the complete lack of ethical responsibility — from another angle.
Filmmaker: What in the course of reading Atwood’s book made you imagine this material was worth exploring in a visual medium?
Baichwal: It took me a long time to get to that place. The whole thing started with a producer at the National Film Board of Canada named Ravida Din, who’s a big Atwood fan. When the book came out, she thought, I should get the rights to this. She emailed Margaret from some address she found online and asked, “Are you interested in [selling the rights]?” and expected she’d hear back in a month from an agent. She got a response 20 minutes later from Margaret herself, who said, “What did you have in mind?” [Laughs] Ravida called me immediately and said, “Would you be interested in doing this?” and I said, “Absolutely not!” [Laughs] I don’t understand this world of money and finance at all. She made me promise to read the book, and afterwards I realized it was this incredibly rich exploration that brings in revenge and sin-eaters and forgiveness and pawn shops and redemption. So I said, “Give me six months to think this through, and if I think I can make this into an intelligent film, we’ll move ahead.” It was a hard book to crack in that sense, because how do you make [these concepts] work in a time-based medium? I had to come up with real visceral examples of living in indebtedness. The other thing was, What is the role of Margaret in all this? I could have done the conventional thing and interviewed her, but then I’d be going away from the essential thing, which is the text, based on her spoken words. So all of her [dialogue in the film] is her preparing for or reading from the lectures.
Filmmaker: A number of documentary filmmakers read books that interest them or engage them with ideas they decide to pursue, but they don’t necessarily “adapt” the book. Why did it make sense for you to build Payback around those lectures and include Atwood herself?
Baichwal: I’ve never adapted a book before. But most of our films have interpreted or translated something. They’re all questions I have or problems I can’t figure out – the Paul Bowles film Let It Come Down was about the problem of biography and Manufactured Landscapes was about how to convey scale in time. In this case, I needed Margaret’s words to be the jumping-off point – but I was not going to be chained to a literal translation at the same time. At one point I wasn’t sure she would be in the film at all.
Filmmaker: Do you think of the film as an essay?
Baichwal: Maybe not a true essay, mostly because of how the narratives unfold. Formally, I was interested in having stories that could stand alone, then having Margaret be the contextualizer, and then have another layer where people who have thought a lot about debt like Raj Patel or William Rees give an added perspective without pronouncing directly on what was happening in those stories. I really don’t like the expert coming in and telling you what’s happening or how to think about [what you’re seeing]. But I did want them to open up what you were looking at — adding that layer was tricky.
Filmmaker: On the aesthetic side, the camera creeps at times through a specific environment, stopping to focus on certain visual details, like the flies hovering around an iron door handle in Albania, or peering through bars at an old penitentiary. How do these little moments fit into your creative headspace around debt, and even filmmaking?
Baichwal: I deplore a subordinate relationship between visual and textual language in documentary. When I’ve taught classes, the very first thing I say to my students is that you have to have a visual language that’s not only organically related to what people in the film are talking about, but that has a life of its own. When language is subordinate, when it’s only illustrating the points that people are making, that feels very dead to me. There’s a lot of conventional documentary work that can pull it off because the story or idea is so strong and compelling that you don’t think about the visual language. Yet for me, it has to have a life of its own. For example, Margaret brings up the idea, and I didn’t know this before we talked about it, that the language of redemption in the Bible comes from pawn shops. They’re older than Biblical language! This idea of being redeemed, or being in this interstitial space before you’re redeemed – which is what all those items in a pawn shop are – is fascinating. I wanted to have that [visually represented] in the film. You know, I could have had Margaret just say it, but it wouldn’t have had the same effect.
Filmmaker: I have to ask you about Conrad Black, because he’s compelling and a bit mysterious to me. And the way he’s used here surprised me a bit. I suppose I was expecting him to divulge some thoughts on the media’s complicity in creating metaphorical debt structures.
Baichwal: I came to Conrad because of a review of Margaret’s book he published in the Literary Review of Canada, which he wrote from prison. He was released on appeal and now he’s serving the rest of his sentence. A lot of people jump to conclusions about him as an authority. But really his perspective is as a person who has gone through the justice system, just like Paul Mohammed. I thought it would be interesting to juxtapose these two extremely different experiences, people who have led very different lives and grappled with what paying your debt to society means. Of course, from Conrad’s perspective, he’s innocent of the charges against him, so he doesn’t feel any remorse at all. Whereas with Paul, you could ruminate quite extensively on what debt society owes him, given his story. He’s filled with remorse.
Filmmaker: You found creative ways to illustrate concepts that Atwood examines in her book. How did you choose where and whom to shoot? I’m especially interested in the blood feud in Albania, because that seems the most remote from you.
Baichwal: It was remote. We went on two long trips there. When I was trying to find out what real situations of indebtedness would be, I could have done the loan collector or the person whose mortgage is being foreclosed on, and I’ve seen that in other films. We all think of ourselves as fairly civilized, but I don’t think you have to scratch too deeply to find those primal feelings of revenge. It took me a year to write the treatment, and I read so many books about finance, which was deathly [laughs], as well as all the 19th-century literature Margaret writes about – novels that seems to be about love but are actually about money. We went to Albania and visited a number of families. What I found interesting about that blood feud is that I could see both sides of the argument. You couldn’t figure out who was right – although I don’t think it’s ever right to shoot someone with a machine gun [laughs], but there was something else going on there. With the Coalition, I knew about their work through Raj Patel and our friend Avi Lewis, who’s a filmmaker with Naomi Klein. We were in Florida four or five times over a year and a half – and we didn’t know the owner of the Pacific Tomato Growers was going to make that agreement when we started shooting. That was a wonderful example of someone paying back. It was extraordinary because of the repercussions that had on the industry in Florida. There’s still a long way to go, and there are still supermarket chains like Publix that refuse to participate in the Campaign for Fair Food.
Filmmaker: That’s crazy.
Baichwal: It is crazy, totally appalling. The BP oil spill happened as I was writing. The idea that there could even be a language of financial reparation around something like that was so absurd, and still is.
Filmmaker: Not to mention that they stinted on the bill.
Baichwal: Oh God. We don’t even know what the long-term effect is on that ecosystem, so using financial language around it seems so ridiculous.
Filmmaker: I find it interesting that an author of myths and fairy tales and speculative fiction would turn her attention to a construct—debt—that seems a bit more abstract, though political and economic. Do you see a connection between her storytelling style and poems and her work as an environmental activist?
Baichwal: Her father was a scientist — a biologist, I think. She grew up in very remote places where he was studying. She lived quite close to the ground, in some respects. When you think about speculative fiction, you think about going off into other worlds, right? But I’m not sure what that connection is. Maybe she imagines these other worlds because she can imagine what the destruction of ours will look like, certainly in Oryx and Crake. And in The Year of the Flood, it’s all over. Yet everything she writes about feels possible.
Filmmaker: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned as a documentary filmmaker that you think other emerging storytellers need to know?
Baichwal: Nobody can teach you how to make a documentary film. You have to live in a weird place between structure and anti-structure, having a plan and being ready to abandon it at any moment. When I fail – and when I see other docs fail – it’s from going too far in one of those directions, having such a rigid idea that you can’t see what’s happening around you. You can’t predict reality. On the other hand, if you open yourself up too much, then what you’re doing becomes arbitrary. So it’s an existential state where you have to always check where you are — and with that, to me, comes an enormous ethical responsibility. There is no question about the power relationship in a doc between the filmmaker and the subject. You have to check that you’re coming from a clean place or a kind place. That can be critique – I’m not talking about being soft. Kindness is the best way to explain it. Living with uncertainty and making sure that your ethical position is the right one are the two most important things to me.