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The Many Meanings of Debt: Margaret Atwood’s Payback

Margaret Atwood's Massey Lecture-turned-bestselling book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, is a fascinating look at the role of “debt” throughout human history. Now, filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal has adapted Payback into a documentary, continuing Atwood's “line of high-minded questioning” into the multiple meanings of this complex subject. Atwood and Baichwal eschew the more common financial incarnation of the term, and instead look at “everything from an Albanian blood feud to Florida tomato farmers” to reveal the many ways one can come into, and even out of, debt.

Here's an excerpt of Atwood and Baichwal's recent interview for The Globe and Mail:

Is debt inevitable then? Do we always owe someone, in one sense or another?

Atwood: No, no, you don’t have to go into debt. But if you do go into debt, it’s a story, you fall into it, you climb out of it.

Baichwal: It’s like a hole.

Atwood: Yes, it’s very much depicted as a hole, a bad kind of debt. But there are good kinds of debt.

Baichwal: There are debts that can’t be paid with money. When you think about the thousands of complex interactions that we engage in every day with other people and with the world around us, there’s always this kind of giving-taking relationship going on.

Atwood: Yes, we’re happy when we think it’s fair, and we’re unhappy when we think it’s not.

Baichwal: So, if you do a favour for someone, most people then think I can call on that person to do a favour for me. You can’t really think of life without these complex tallying situations that we seem to be involved in all the time.

Atwood: And we’re not thinking about it consciously, but when somebody violates this, we feel it’s not the usual thing.

The film, which was an official selection at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, is playing in select cities now. Prolific and authoritative, Atwood continues to push the boundaries of genre and medium.