Paul Mohammed has spent most of his life in prison. By 13 or 14, he says, he was using drugs, and he soon became focused on “getting some dope to put in a needle”. As he speaks, Payback shows him in a prison weight room, his tattooed shoulders massive as he works and his face and figure obscured by incessant vertical lines, the pull-down machine, the door frame, the metal detector. The visual order—insistent and ineffective—suggests efforts to impose order on the chaos of Mohammed’s life, efforts he makes and also, efforts made the social and legal structures that have found and imprisoned him, too late. He’s now paying a debt, the film argues, that is inherently unfair.
Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary, now available on DVD from Zeitgeist, makes this argument with a series of examples. Inspired by Margaret Atwood’s 2008 book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, the film considers debt in culture, religion, and capitalism. Atwood appears repeatedly in the film, typing and musing, editing her work on paper, delivering it as a lecture. Atwood submits that the problem of debt lies in its structure as a human relationship: because it’s a “mental construct”, she writes, “How we think about it changes how it works.” The film shows “how it works” (or doesn’t) in a number of examples that demonstrate its inherent unfairness. If debt is, according to Raj Patel, debt is “a kind of political memory”, that is, a relationship premised on power, it is always unevenly distributed.
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