Big Screen Berkeley: Payback, Yellow Submarine

"Payback" examines the interrelatedness of payback, debt, reparations, and revenge, with a focus on debts of the non-monetary variety

Payback, it is sometimes said indelicately, can be a bitch. Jennifer Baichal’s new documentary Payback, opening this Friday, May 18 at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas (and most definitely not to be confused with the 1999 Mel Gibson thriller of the same name), takes a more contemplative approach to the term: payback, it turns out, can also be a restorative in the right hands.

Inspired by Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s book “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth”, the film takes a decidedly broad approach to its topic. Traveling around the world, Baichal examines the interrelatedness of payback, debt, reparations, and revenge, with especial attention paid to debts of the non-monetary variety.

The film begins in Albania, where the question emerges — how do you keep them down on the farm once they’ve seen Tirana? The not so obvious answer is to invoke Kanun, an ancient, quasi-legal code of honor developed hundreds of years ago. Kanun still holds sway in the remote regions of northern Albania, where farmer Llesh Prenaga has been under virtual house arrest for the last three years.

Convicted not by a court of law but by the weight of collective community guilt, he owes a debt to Petrit, the neighbor Llesh shot during a land dispute. In accordance with the rules of Kanun, Llesh is free to leave his property at any time — but Petrit is also free to kill him if he does. It’s a blood feud stalemate that can only be resolved by reconciliation, which in this case doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

Payback also explores its topic on the macro level. Humanity’s debt to Planet Earth is examined via the environmental damage wrought by BP’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, while the shocking treatment of migrant farm workers in the tomato fields of Florida — where pickers were little more than slaves as recently as 2008 — attests to the value of both reparations and reconciliation.

Though the film’s subject matter is deeply engrossing, I’m sorry to report that Atwood is not the most magnetic of screen personalities. Seen typing at her desk and delivering an address about debt, the author of “The Handmaid’s Tale” comes across as a bland distaff version of William Burroughs, her deadpan north-of-the-border drawl likely to lull many viewers to sleep.

Faring better in the talking heads department are former UN Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbour, ‘the rock star of social justice writing’ Raj Patel, and one-time nun and popular historian Karen Armstrong. Ex-con Conrad Black comes across as a little less credible: though he’s apparently learned his lesson since being convicted on charges of fraud and obstruction of justice, he still seems to be living the life of Riley.

Despite Atwood’s numbing presence, however, the film soars during its final moments as a variety of speakers read a powerful passage from her book. Admirers of the Booker Prize-winning scribe will be pleased; others will learn much if they can stay awake.

What more is there to be said or written about The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine? Last seen at the Castro Theatre ten or twelve years back and now once again on re-release, this pop art masterpiece has been newly restored by the aptly named Triage Motion Pictures. Eschewing the cheap and cheerful digital cleanups of recent years, this frame-by-frame restoration was done the old fashioned way — by hand. I haven’t seen the results of Triage’s work yet, but any Beatlemaniac worth their salt should head down to Rialto Cinemas Elmwood at noon this coming Saturday, May 19. Dare I suggest a splendid time is guaranteed for all?

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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