It's PAYBACK's time
March 16, 2012 | The Massey Lectures are as much a Canadian institution as the RCMP, so it's fitting that I spotted honorary Mountie Paul Gross in the audience of Margaret Atwood's closing talk back in 2008. Landing at the anxious first crest of the financial crisis, Atwood's lectures, collected and published as the best-selling Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, were regarded as the latest in the internationally-renowned author's string of prophesies come true. (The Handmaid's Tale's dystopian vision of an American theocracy that reduces women to reproductive concubines might now be mistaken for Rick Santorum's four-year prospectus.) Yet Atwood wastes no time in announcing that debt is not in vogue so much as hardwired into human patterns of thinking. Nor does she offer financial advice, playfully following her interest in score-keeping wherever it takes her, whether to the Victorian novel, where a parent's balance sheet can make or break a marriage, or to how we think about the penance in penitentiaries.
Atwood's curiosity about the notion of "paying one's debt to society" launches Payback, Toronto-based documentarian Jennifer Baichwal's incisive adaptation, which debuted at Sundance this past January. Baichwal's filmography casts a wide geographic and thematic net, encompassing the random (or ultimate) meaning of lightning strikes in Cuba (Act of God) and the moral quagmire of Shelby Lee Adams's photographs of poor Appalachians (The True Meaning of Pictures), but it's remarkably consistent in methodology. Her films tend to start at the perceived bottom of a complex problem, only to then burrow further into it instead of charting a way out. Payback's tagline--"Some debts can't be paid with money"--could serve as the title of a retrospective of her work.
I spoke separately with Baichwal and Atwood at the Sutton Place in Toronto. In conversation, Baichwal comes across as joint artist and academic, her philosophy background apparent in the way she treats thinking as a profession rather than as a hobby. Atwood's formidable intellect has the puckish streak one might expect of Canada's Cassandra (so dubbed in a recent GLOBE AND MAIL review by author Aritha van Herk). Whether she's waxing on Dickens or Rover the dog, she consistently dashes off the kind of blindsiding aphorisms that would have been the envy of Samuel Johnson.-Angelo Muredda
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: I'm curious about the genesis of this project. I was a bit surprised when I heard you were adapting Payback. Your films have a critical but non-coercive point of view: they revel in ambiguities in a way we tend not to think of the lecture format as doing, maybe unfairly. But Atwood's book also has that complicated ironic stance, and arguably the Massey Lectures' mandate is to approach an interesting subject from a position of non-mastery. Was this text a challenge to adapt, or was it in line with your usual approach?
JENNIFER BAICHWAL: You're absolutely right. It's true that all of our films try to open a space to think about something in a way you haven't really thought of it before, and also to create a place for sustained reflection, which I think is rarer and rarer. The NFB got the rights to it, through this very brilliant producer Ravida Din, and she phoned me and said, "Would you be interested in doing this?" And I immediately said no. A, it's Margaret Atwood--that's just way too intimidating. B, it's probably about money. To do a linear investigative piece--and believe me, I've seen a lot of those films on the crash--they're unsatisfying to me on one level. As you say, our films revel in ambiguity--these films don't take into account the complexities of the situation. There is no throughline, no linear way of dealing with that issue. Anyway, I said no, but she persisted and said, "You must read it first." And then when I read it--you know my background is in philosophy and theology, and I was really on my way to becoming an academic--I found the book was full of reflections on indebtedness: in a moral context, in a legal context, in a social justice context, in an environmental context. I was completely entranced by it. I thought this was an incredibly complex riff on an idea. It does the same thing that we try to do--it opens up a space to think about something in a different way. I still thought it was impossible to make into a film.
What was the turning point?
It took a year to write it. From the beginning I said, if we don't have real stories that viscerally embody the themes she's bringing up in a more conceptual way, we can't do it. That was the better part of a year: reading, writing, researching--reading the book over and over again, reading other books, reading the books she cited. When I came up with those stories, at the eight-month mark, I thought, it's the first time I can see what this might look like. In a way, those stories are contextualized by these meta-level ideas that come from her. I thought, if I treat her as a subject, I'll have failed. Why would we treat her as a subject when she's an author? So I went back to the words. And then I learned that they were lectures originally, so I listened to the lectures. It was then, that a-ha moment, that I saw the lectures were the closest place to the very beginning of things. This live delivery is the way to convey her ideas and contextualize the stories. Then the other commentators became a way of opening up the story without acting as experts that come in and tell you what to think.
Most of your documentaries have that collaborative component, if you want to call it that, where the artists you're working with almost become co-authors. The True Meaning of Pictures and Manufactured Landscapes don't treat Shelby Lee Adams or Edward Burtynsky as biographical subjects but as other thinkers or artists pursuing the same ideas, or swimming in the same murky ethical waters.
Burtynsky was an author too. He framed it--he's the framer of what you're looking at. [Cinematographer] Peter Mettler and I had many discussions about how to deal with Ed in this film. Peter had these radical ideas--"Let's not show any photographs." No! We're showing photographs. How do we show them? It would've been a failure in that film if we went into the biographical piece: he was born here, this is when he got interested in photography, and so on. It wasn't that kind of film. I felt like here, when I figured out how to let her be the author, I had my way. For me, the translation into film is the challenge. If I was somebody who was interested in ideas springing from my head, and just doing something on my own, I would probably make dramatic films. And I have no interest in that--it's things that fascinate me in reality. Reality is its own story, and you have to find some way to be the conduit for conveying that successfully. There are so many things in reality that I'm fascinated by that I would never take a flight into the world of imagination. But I'm particularly drawn to art and artists because I feel like that is a rich arena that can explore things in an emotional way, an intellectual way, and a visceral way. I learned that from being in university where it was only intellectual, and it wasn't enough. There had to be other ways, and that's why I got into film. So that's why I'm drawn to art: it's a very rich arena for asking questions about human conditions, and it also doesn't come up with easy answers.
Is there something distinctive about working with a writer? You've paired up with both writers and photographers before.
There's nothing more magical than words well-written. Our film on Paul Bowles was the last film on a writer we did. Trying to live in a Bowlesian universe was sort of what that was about--how do you deal with the impossibility of biography, and how do you get into the world of this person? In Margaret's case, she is such a formidable intellect. The connections she makes are unbelievable. I was deeply intimidated by the thought of working with her, and trying to convey her ideas, and I had to wilfully make myself forget about her looking over me as I was writing or reading, just to get going. Once we started filming, of course, I get completely caught up in the stories that we were exploring. We spend quite a bit of time in those contexts, because you can't parachute in and out, morally. You certainly can't do that in stories like this.
How did you get from the fluid concept of payback to these specific stories, especially your centrepiece, the blood feud in Albania?
Margaret talks about revenge quite a bit in the book, so I thought, what is the contemporary situation of that? I kept reading about the idea of honour killings, but the problem with them, other than the fact that they're horrendous, especially when they're transposed in a Western context, is there's so much edifice around them that you can't deal with. It asks other questions, just like, for example, human trafficking, which we also considered. One of the most prevalent forms of human trafficking is forced prostitution and women. That brings up a whole other question: it's murky morally, and it's a huge issue to bring up. When I read this article by Dan Bilefsky in the NEW YORK TIMES about blood feuds in Albania, we then went and interviewed many people who were involved--families where ten men are all trapped in the same house and can't go outside. This story felt right because it was completely intractable. Believe me, we've tried to effect a reconciliation. There's still a feud. It is intractable. Yet I have empathy for both sides. I understand the guy whose family is trapped in the house, but then I also understand the guy who got shot for having a fight about land. I get both sides of that, and there's no way that I could get both sides of a human trafficking issue.
There's something about this case, maybe because both men are segregated in different spaces, that invites you to project yourself into both sides, within limits.
You can see both of their positions. I kept going back and forth until I finally decided this is what it is: they both have legitimate issues, it's just too bad it has to be expressed in that way, and the worst part of it is, it's the families who end up paying, especially the children.
It struck me that I was more sympathetic to the family under house arrest at first because of how you visualized their cramped quarters. It was only when the brother of the man who'd been shot described his wounds, which weren't immediately obvious, that I shifted allegiances. In keeping with the book's interest in scales, you seem to have your own system of balances.
Right--the most immediate, sympathetic figure is the man who is trapped. But stories are always complicated, as you say. As you learn more and more about his situation, and that he suffered for a long time, you understand his perspective. Those guys in that bar--they were all armed. It was one of those situations where we kind of looked at each other. My husband Nick (producer and cinematographer Nick de Pencier-FFC) and I work together, and our kids were at home with my mother. We thought, should we really be here right now together, or should one of us be at the house? It comes up in every film. It came up in the lightning film [Act of God]: should we really both be on the dock, filming the lightning? I had that moment in Albania.
On that note of the murkiness of this conflict, your work tends to track complex problems across national boundaries. Do you think of yourself as a globally conscious filmmaker or is it more a question of going where the subject demands--for example, following a product from producer to consumer?
It's not my place to call myself globally conscious. My own background is bicultural: my mother is British and my father is Indian. For a long time I had difficulty with the marginality of not being part of one particular group, or not having an identity that was obvious. I longed for that sense of belonging. As I got older, I came to appreciate the marginality. I feel like when you don't really belong anywhere--and I don't want to simplify or romanticize that perspective--it makes you able to look at the dominant culture in a different way. All of our films have tried to do that. Paul Bowles was an iconoclast. He left the United States. He rejected American culture and went to live in Morocco. He was an expatriate who never went back. There were heroic figures--Hemingway, Burroughs--who went back and revelled in their work. Bowles didn't go back. The True Meaning of Pictures is about a community that has rejected American culture on some level--the Appalachian people. Manufactured Landscapes is about making you realize that these are things you're responsible for but would never normally see: the inside of those factories, where they make the things that we use every day. We're connected to that thing that is happening in another part of the world. That's what I would call it, not globally conscious: at first, accidentally marginal. Now I recognize that may give a particular perspective to our films. Somebody said in a review, in a disdainful way, that this was a "left-wing film." I don't think of it as that at all. If you're going to say that it's "left-wing" to argue that tomato workers should be paid a penny a pound more, well--I would call that a human perspective.
And you give Conrad Black his due as well.
He's speaking as a prisoner. He's "paying his debt to society"--what does that mean?
MARGARET ATWOOD: So you interviewed Jennifer.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: I did. She had only nice things to say about you.
That's because I let her do whatever she wanted. People usually like you if you let them do that.
Can you speak about the process of adapting your book? How extensively were you involved?
Well, I was involved as somebody who got filmed. But I wasn't involved as somebody who told Jennifer what to do. We had a long talk at the beginning with the producer about various directions it might or might not take, and things we might or might not be able to do. I think making these kinds of films is almost like the rat running the maze to find the cheese: you go down there, and there's no cheese there, then you come back and go there, and there also isn't any cheese there, and around, and lo, there might be some cheese. So, we went down several of those "no cheese there" alleyways. But she really figured it out. If you think of it, each of the stories is a bead, and the bits of lecture are the string. So you get some beads put together in a certain pattern held together by the string and then you get a repeat of the first bead, and so on. It took her a while to figure out what part I was going to play--whether I was going to be a subject or an element in the film. I ended up being an element in the film, which is a much better way of doing it, because the subject approach would have been pretty boring.
You're a multi-faceted element, though--there's Margaret Atwood, writer, proofing her manuscript, but also Margaret Atwood, performer, delivering the Massey Lectures.
That's right. I did say to Jennifer, "I could have done without those shots of my double chin." My best comment about my delivery of the lectures was when I did the Vancouver one, I think it was number two, and some smarty pants student reporter said, "Margaret Atwood came onstage looking like a Q-Tip on fire."
Did you revenge yourself on Twitter?
I wasn't even on Twitter. This was 2008--I didn't go on Twitter until 2009, when I was launching the website for Year of the Flood. Part of that whole thing was they said you had to have this Twitter. So I started with that book launch, which would have been September 2009. And now I've got 308,000 followers.
You're also getting into discussions related to debt, it seems to me. I noticed just yesterday you were debating--
The robocalls! Yes: whether it's fair or not.
That seems to be how some people are thinking of it, as an exchange. Show me your underpants: okay. Now you show me yours: no. It's grade two. You can't imagine what a strange level this has all gone on to. People thinking that the Conservatives are entitled to behave badly because the Liberals did. As a voter, you can't quite buy that: you don't want any of them to behave badly.
There's also the notion that only one side ought to disclose its records--the side I'm not on.
Well the Liberals are quite happy to reveal theirs. I guess they know that their underpants are okay. But as soon as you say, "Well you have to show me yours, but I'm not going to show you mine," there's something quite unfair about that. It goes back to the notion of balance and fairness--of two sides needing to be equal. "We don't have to show you because we know ours are clean" doesn't cut it.
I wonder if you could talk about the close of your book, which features prominently in the film. Towards the end, all of the film's subjects (or "elements")--including, amusingly, Conrad Black--read a passage from Payback where "Scrooge Nouveau," your thought experiment version of Dickens's protagonist, realizes he was never rich at all, that all his wealth was simply on loan. But Scrooge Nouveau only seems to realize he has communitarian and ecological debts to pay after he has an apocalyptic vision of his future, wherein he's exchanging his now useless green bills for dog food.
Why do you think he needs a vision of this bad end to settle his scores?
Scrooge the First also needed it. It's the grave scene, and the bed-curtain scene. He starts his journey of redemption, oddly enough, through books. It's when he revisits himself as a schoolboy who's been left all alone--but at least he's got these books who are his friends. And that's when Scrooge reconnects with the earlier, more human person he once was. So then we follow that along through the story in which he learns to empathize with others. But it's not until he sees what might become of him. The thing about Dickens is, and it's so funny--good characters die too. Good characters die, and bad characters die, and they're both actually dead, but good characters have robins bringing leaves, and sure you're not actually there at the time, but it certainly makes everybody cry. So anyway he sees himself: he actually would be just as dead as if he had been a Good Scrooge and everybody was sorry. But that is what he's aiming for: he wants other people to connect with him, and it's not until he has that vision of total solitude, which is an echo of the earlier schoolboy left alone, that he says, "Tell me this isn't so. Tell me, can I change? Give me another chance."
The present just isn't as compelling as a nightmarish future?
Well that's the beauty about visions of the future. Number one, they're not here yet. You have a bit more scope. Number two is out of Robert Burns's "To a Mouse": the mouse doesn't have to worry about the future, but Robert Burns does. That's one of the burdens of being a human, because we've got grammar. It's not that Rover the dog can't anticipate the future--he can. He knows when you're coming home, as a rule. He gets up to run and greet you even before you're in sight. But he's not going to think, "What will happen to me, Rover the dog, after I die?"
So in terms of motivation, whether to do better or to simply settle our debts, futurity is particular to humans?
I think it's connected to the future perfect. I think it's connected to complex grammar. Just as "Where did Rover the dog come from in the beginning?" is not a question that seems to trouble Rover's mind.
So much as whether he'll be eating?
That he'll be eating something. He's certainly very interested in that, but not, "Where did my forbearers come from, and what about before that?" Whereas any five-year-old child gets to that part of, "Where did I come from, and what about before that?" And "where did you come from, and what about before that?" So that is why Jimmy/Snowman in Oryx and Crake has to develop an origin story.
Speaking of origins, you make the point in the book, which the film emphasizes, that debt can't exist without memory. One of the ways you eliminate debt, certainly in the historical examples you cite, is to wipe out the ledgers.
That's right: either the ledgers or the people to whom you owe the money.
The angels keeping score.
You can't get rid of them. The human being ones, the moneylenders, whether they were the Jewish moneylenders or the Knights Templar. When the debt got too big, the kings just got rid of the people to whom you owed the money, so you could start again. But the peasants' revolts typically went to the castle and burned the records, if they could get a hold of them.
We don't seem to have the same capacity for memory when it comes to environmental debts. Are our ledgers as scrupulous there as they are when, say, someone hits us, we remember it as pain, and we want to pay them back? Do we have amnesia when it comes to paying back natural resources?
But nature doesn't have amnesia. That's the problem. Chemistry and physics do not have amnesia, nor can you cut a deal with them. That's the bad part. We keep thinking that this is just a human thing--that imbalance is just a money thing. It's a chemistry and physics thing, too. So when things get too hot, uh oh: that means it's in the ocean. You can't just say, "Sorry about that. Let me give you a couple billion dollars. Here, ocean." "Thanks," say the fish. There actually is no way of doing that. Money is a totally abstract, symbolic, man-made thing--entirely worthless as soon as you say it's worthless. It is Alice and the pack of cards--"You're nothing but a pack of cards!" It's nothing but a number.
That's comforting. Whether we get around to payback on our own totally abstract, symbolic terms, then, nature is the ultimate reckoner?
Nature is the ultimate reckoner, exactly right. Put it very simply: When the fish are all gone, there aren't any more. You say to little kids, "There are no more cookies." "When will I get a cookie?" "There are no more cookies. They're gone. Empty. Gone."
That's as good a stopping point as any.
No more cookies! All gone. What was the old ad that said, "All gone, Teddy?" (Atwood gestures to my iPhone) Look up "All gone, Teddy."