Seated across from me at a roundtable at Sutton Place Hotel, Margaret Atwood is consumed with debt — not debt of a financial nature but debt as a psychological construct. In 2008, Atwood delivered the CBC Massey Lectures Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. Although her original topic was related to literature, she ultimately decided to test unfamiliar waters and write about debt. It is clear that this subject continues to fascinate Atwood, who reminds me of a professor in her eagerness to discuss her area of study. Though this great Canadian literary mind is indeed rather charming, Atwood, posing as many rhetorical questions as questions are posed to her, is analytical, sharp, and cool: both remarkably interested and exceptionally interesting.
This year, director Jennifer Baichwal releases her documentary, Payback, based on the lecture series and subsequent novel. It took some convincing, however, to prompt Baichwal to take on the project.
“At first she said, ‘oh, it’s about money; I don’t want to do that,’ but as soon as she realized it wasn’t about money but about how people interact, then she got interested in it,” Atwood recalls.
Baichwal elaborates in a separate interview, “I didn’t know what it was about because I’d only listened to the first lecture and I thought… ‘it’s probably going to be about money — it’s going to be about the crash’… But [producer] Ravida [Din] persisted and said “you just have to read it, and then we can talk,” and I think she probably knew that I would get completely hooked because of the ideas and the complexity. I mean, she’s [Atwood] so smart, but she’s also so curious. To preserve curiosity when you’ve lived for a long time, that’s a true achievement, and you see that curiosity when you read the book.”
Although Atwood’s ideas about debt inspired the film, she was not involved with the process of creating the documentary. She and Baichwal had a brief discussion at the onset of the project, following which Baichwal embarked on a three-year process of filmmaking independent of Atwood’s guidance. The book and the documentary are therefore very different from one another, utilizing entirely unique anecdotes to complement Atwood’s notions of debt.
Baichwal grappled with how to present Atwood in her film, finally choosing to use original recordings of her Massey lectures as narration for the film’s testimonies. “If you think of the stories that she follows as beads, the lectures as the string, and then the pattern as the way she will do several beads, and then a repeat of those beads further down… we see how each of the beads turns out,” Atwood explains, carefully demonstrating the action of stringing beads.
“These were originally delivered orally,” Baichwal comments regarding the lectures, “and there’s something about the chatty nature of them — they’re kind of conversational, even though they’re dense… The little things she said contextualize the story — ‘revenge is a wound of a soul’ the trickle-down theory of economics, the metaphor of not a gushing waterfall but a leaking tap — that’s all you need to know about why that story’s there.”
Atwood could not pinpoint any one of the new anecdotes introduced by Baichwal as particularly germane to her message.
“It’s very hard to select because they are all different looks at the same thing, which is balances — how do we balance this situation, how do we balance that situation? When are things out of balance, when are they in balance? And we do that every day, in every way.” Laughing, Atwood adds an example reminiscent of her book, “I made the toast yesterday, it’s your turn.”
The lectures emphasized literary evidence, but the film necessarily took virtually all its testimony from modern events and phenomena, such as the BP oil spill, an Albanian blood feud, and the case of a Canadian prisoner. Baichwal hoped to expand on Atwood’s ideas without reiterating the novel. “The goal was to create, like the book did, a space where you can think about debt in ways that you wouldn’t normally think about it or that you haven’t thought about it before.”
The use of Charles Dickens’ iconic character, Ebenezer Scrooge, is one common thread in both film and novel.
“We love Scrooge,” Atwood explains. “He’s always intrigued me as a literary figure and also as one people connect with quite strongly partly because he gets a second chance. But he’s also an early capitalist figure… What Dickens doesn’t want is no capitalism; what he wants is benevolent capitalists.”
She goes: “The other question is what would Scrooge look like if he were with us today? And what would the spirits of past, present, and future show him? … And in what way is he then going to be motivated to act differently?”
When Atwood originally published Payback, critics applauded her for her timeliness in discussing debt just prior to the 2008 global economic meltdown. The film now emphasizes environmental debt. I bring this up in the interview, but before answering my comment, Atwood scolds my wording: “That word, ‘environmental’… is pretty abstract, and you think well, it’s over there I don’t have to worry about the environment unless I go camping.’ So let’s just talk about your water, your food and your air. Because that’s what it is really.”
Scrooge once again serves as a vessel for Atwood’s thinking, now on human debt to the environment. “So Scrooge wakes up, and… he’s not condemned forever. We still have time… but I don’t see any political will. In fact, what I see is a political will to squash dissent and make it as if none of it’s happening.”
Baichwal expresses hope for the utopian future envisioned by Atwood at the end of Payback and hinted at in the documentary’s final scenes, commenting, “I believe, at the end, when Scrooge is walking around in his hemp suit and people are riding around on bicycles and lots of debt’s been wiped out, I could imagine a future like that.”
She jokes that Margaret is more cynical than herself, and indeed, this comes across as Atwood departs from the room, talking still passionately even as she is passing through the doorframe, cheekily adding over her shoulder, “…but never mind — somebody will think of something, that’s what we always hope.”
There will be a free screening of Payback, followed by a Q&A with Jennifer Baichwal at Innis Town Hall on March 15, 2012, 6:30 pm (doors open at 6 pm). RSVP to