The Definition of Debt

“He has paid his debt to society”. It’s an old term, though one that has fallen out of common use. The turn of phrase puzzled writer Margaret Atwood so much, that she wrote an entire book on debt, and the different ways human society views it. Payback, a documentary made in 2011, is a fascinating movie based off of the findings in Atwood’s book Payback: The Shadow Side of Debt. Rather than look at debt in the way most of us are used to, in terms of money, Atwood delves into its other contexts: the debt of the soul, the politics of debt, and how something so intangible can be measured and paid.

Throughout the film we visit 4 main stories: a blood feud in Northern Albania, the US prison system, the Gulf oil spill , and modern day slavery of Mexican workers in Florida tomato fields. Each story shows us debt through a different lens: personal, societal, ecological, and as a tool to be used to maintain power. The film examines the types of debt that cannot be paid back with money, focusing instead on what is described as a ‘psychic’ debt.

Payback cycles through these 4 stories, each working to reveal more about humanity’s understanding of debt over time. We are shown the opinions of people currently paying their dues (two men embroiled in a blood feud, a repeat offender in the US) as well as the opinion of experts from a variety of fields.  The film drives at the belief that is at root of our concepts of debt.: that there is an underlying balancing act in the universe. Atwood notes that it is an almost universal assumption, particularly in religious circles, that what comes around goes around. There is the Tao, the wheel of karmic justice, heaven and hell, all based on this supposed cosmic law of reciprocity.

One of the most interesting elements of the film was the examination of the American criminal justice system. There are currently 47 million people with criminal records, most of whom are charged with petty crimes, and over 2.4 million prisoners. Our opinion of incarceration has shifted over time. Decades ago, jail was viewed as a way to pay ones debt to society. Criminals were imprisoned, served their time and were hopefully rehabilitated along the way. This is a stark contrast to present day, which emphasizes punishment over penance and where prisoners are stigmatized upon release. The balance has shifted, and has made it so that one act has the potential to stain the rest of someone’s life. Rather than being seen as having paid their debt, ex-cons are often shunned. Payback contrasts this nicely with the practice of blood feuds in Northern Albania. The film interviews two men, one of whom tried to kill the other. The offender in this case is now permanently confined to his property, and if he were to leave, the other man has the right to kill him (for a fictional look at modern day blood feuds check out my review of The Forgiveness of Blood: His only hope of returning to a normal life is if the victim agrees to settle.

Perhaps the most pertinent subject the film examines is ecological debt. Framed against the Gulf of Mexico Oil spill and its ramifications upon the ecosystem, the film begs the question, what will happen if we don’t pay back in time? What is nature’s ultimate debt collection? As noted in the film, the world’s wealthiest countries are the greatest contributors to ecological debt, swallowing up the world’s resources and poisoning everything else. Although the film offers no solutions, and only poses questions, one wonders if corporations will ever smarten up, and factor their contribution to ecological debt when calculating their bottom line. One can only hope.

Payback provides a careful break down of a commonly held, though rarely discussed concept. If you ever wanted to look deep into the heart of debt, this film is definitely worth your time. Watch it now on Netflix Canada!