'Payback' Shows the Costs of Debt

by Cynthia Fuchs

8 May 2012

Payback makes visible the debt system's many intersecting elements, those who are victimized and exploited, and those who benefit and claim superiority.
A scene from PAYBACK. A film by
Jennifer Baichwal. A Zeitgeist Films release. 

That Sort of Thing

cover art


Director: Jennifer Baichwal
Cast: Margaret Atwood, Raj Patel, Paul Mohammed, Casi Callaway, Llesh Prenaga, Louise Arbour, Conrad Black

(Zeitgeist Films)
US theatrical: 25 Apr 2012 (Limited release)

“This, to me, is not paying back,” says Paul Mohammed. “I am by no means innocent. I did what I did and I knew what I was doing.” Now, he’s inside Fenbrook Institution, in Gravenhurst, Ontario, a point emphasized in Payback by a couple of shots of the prison’s barbed wire fencing, filmed during a deep blue twilight and light rainfall. “Instead of addressing the problem, they just take the person and put them into the prison. And now the problem is the person, and not the problems that put them in prison.”

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, the film shows him in a prison weight room, his tattooed shoulders massive as he works, 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—hints at a theme, that debt is an attempt to find or impose order on the chaos of daily life.

Sometimes, this order begins with repetition. In Mohammed’s case, that order is hardly beneficial. His mother recalls the abuses he suffered as a child, bullied and beaten, tied up and called names like “chocolate-face” and “Paki.” The camera cuts back to Mohammed’s interview (he wears a cross on his neck, perhaps another effort to find order, one that the film doesn’t address). He describes his own disturbing order: “I get out, I steal. I buy drugs, I try to keep myself high. And I get caught within a few weeks and go back to prison for a few years,” Mohammed says, “Hell, I’ve been out as little as I got arrested the same day I got out of jail.”

When Mohammed pauses here to look at the camera, he doesn’t have to say what you’re thinking, that prison is not achieving any sort of desirable end. Once upon a time, the film points out with a visit to Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Prison (now a historic site, toured and preserved), jailers might have thought that incarceration might lead to redemption or maybe penance. Today, says historian Francis Dolan, the “separation situation” rarely leads to positive change. Instead, as in the case of Paul Mohammed, prison serves as repository and punishment: once prisoners go in, they tend to stay in, one way or another.

How such poor design has become the norm is a question at the center of Payback, which opened in New York last week. Inspired by Margaret Atwood’s 2008 book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, Jennifer Baichwal’s film considers debt in various forms, including prison (as a means to extract a “debt to society”). Atwood appears repeatedly in the film, typing her essay, editing it 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.” And how we think about it changes over time and place. The film visits Albania, where the Kanun code prescribes that a criminal (here, Llesh Prenaga) and his family must remain confined to their home for life, as well as the Gulf Coast, to which BP Oil owes a debt, not only for the oil spill, but also for the use of chemical dispersants.

The fact that this debt can never be repaid makes it more typical than not. Debt, the film suggests by way of Atwood, is inherently unfair. According to Raj Patel, debt is “a kind of political memory,” that is, a relationship premised on power, unevenly distributed. Thus, Paul Mohammed is a victim of circumstances, and so are the victims of his crimes (for instance, the Holocaust survivor who is “scared of me,” he remembers tearfully, because he violated her), and so is Conrad Black, the Canadian-born author and former member of the British House of Lords who was convicted by the US government of fraud and obstruction of justice concerning his company, Hollinger International.

No surprise, Black’s description of his incarceration is rather different from Paul Mohammed’s. Still, like Mohammed, he alludes to the essential injustice of penal politics. “What you get fairly early on,” he says, seated in his fancy drawing room, appointed with white designer sofas and chairs, “Are those who believe the natural sense of justice is, and this is a slight corruption… is a Darwinian matter, where people should take what they can get. And you don’t have to take that very far before you’re getting into the oppression of the weak by the strong and that sort of thing.” 

That sort of thing, Payback suggests more than once, is the foundation of debt. And debt is fundamental to capitalism, a system that William Rees (who begins his interview while rowing in a canoe), notes, has “run its course,” for its premise, that resources are unlimited, can no longer be believed. The experience of Florida’s tomato farmworkers provides a vivid example of exploitation, its costs as well as its benefits. According to Eric Schlosser, who testified before the US Senate in 2008, not only are workers treated like slaves, but “The tomato growers of Florida and some of their fast food customers continue to deny that these abuses exist.” The film doesn’t document abuses, but it does indicate the hardships workers endure: they appear in their homes, laboring in fields (in carefully composed frames, at once poetic and poignant), and organizing for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

The film offers gorgeous images of work on the farm, workers in motion, bright sunlight and green tomatoes in baskets. But such work is part of a much broader structure, wherein poor individuals—even organized into a coalition currently 5,000 members strong—is set against a corporate system usually called “the free market.” As Patel points out, “The freedom in free markets isn’t really about everyone, it’s only the freedom of those with money.” And it’s not just that some exercise freedom and others do not. The freest agents are large corporations, he says, “For the rest of us, we live with the consequences, the environmental and the social consequences, of their actions.” Exploitation is systemic. So, leading to the oil spill, BP “cut every corner they possibly could have,” says Karen Armstrong, and farmworkers’ exploitation is the foundation of profits for food manufacturers.

If none of this is precisely news, Payback makes visible the debt system’s many intersecting elements, those who are victimized and exploited, and those who benefit and claim superiority. Debt is a fiction, not ordered or fair, but ongoing.



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