What We Talk About When We Talk About Debt
Jennifer Baichwal adapts to screen Margaret Atwood's ideas about indebtedness
Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal often makes elliptical, nonlinear films that translate one medium into another; she enjoys wading into subject matter that involves thorny issues without easy answers. Her last film, 2006's Manufactured Landscapes, followed the photographer Edward Burtynsky and his stunning pictures of the detritus of China's industrial and technological revolutions. But Baichwal had never adapted a book into a documentary until she was approached by the Canadian National Film Board to direct an adaptation of novelist Margaret Atwood's Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, a 2008 nonfiction book that originated as a lecture series delivered by the author in Toronto.
Baichwal hesitated at first, intimidated, she said, by Atwood's venerated intellect and reputation: "She was required reading when I was in high school! Everyone in Canada knows who Margaret Atwood is." And she fretted that it was all about money – "a topic I am not very well-versed in – documentary filmmaking is not the most lucrative profession." But after reading Atwood's book she was hooked, discovering it was not about money but a witty, complex, and conversational exploration of the "idea" of debt and the ways that indebtedness, be it moral, legal, ecological or financial, is dealt with in various societal contexts. The next six months were spent trying to figure out how to make all of that cinematic. No small task.
What Baichwal came up with was essentially a multivoiced riff on Atwood's riff about owing and being owed. She achieves this by interweaving clips from the novelist's lectures with illuminating narratives (chosen by Baichwal), along with input from a mix of economists, ecologists, and religion scholars. We even hear from media mogul Conrad Black, reading his own words about paying his debt to society in a cushy U.S. prison following his conviction for fraud. The amazing visual sequences produced by Baichwal's cinematographer husband, Nick de Pencier, add a practically stand-alone voice to the wide net his wife casts in rendering this abstract subject. It's a visually elegant, engaging film with throughlines that require the viewer to do a bit of heavy-lifting.
Austin Chronicle: Are the stories you present in the film to illustrate Atwood's themes – the inter-family Albanian blood feud, the BP Gulf oil spill, the exploited Florida farmworkers – contained in the book?
Jennifer Baichwal: The stories in the film are not specifically raised in the book, though they are there in a more abstract way. For example, Atwood devotes a whole chapter to revenge, the impetus to which she describes as "a wound to the soul." We explore revenge and its category, moral debt, through a story of two Albanian families locked in a blood feud. If the individual on one side of the feud leaves his house, he can be killed by the other, and he has been trapped for nearly 10 years. What intrigued me was how easy it is to get into an intractable situation, where people won't budge. I don't think you have to scratch very deep to find that feuding or vengeful impulse in most of society.
Financial debt was explored through the story of the CIW [Coalition of Immokalee Workers], a group of Florida farmworkers, and their struggle for justice and fairness in the fields. Actual cases of slavery involving farmworkers have been prosecuted in the U.S. as recently as 2008! I was led to this [story] by thinking about the bottom of the economic system most of us in the global north participate in, but rarely witness or experience directly. What does the bottom look like? It looks like the lives of migrant farmworkers. And we are inextricably connected to these farmworkers because the tomatoes we buy at the supermarket, order in restaurants, or eat in sandwiches are picked by them.
The idea of legal debt was explored through the reflections of two very different prisoners: the former media mogul, Conrad Black, and a repeat breaking-and-entering offender, Paul Mohammed. Is incarceration punishment or rehabilitation? Or both? What does "paying your debt to society" mean? And does society ever owe a debt to those who have never been given a fair chance in life?
We address ecological debt through the tragedy of the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill. We went and filmed from a helicopter a few weeks after the accident when the wellhead started gushing, and it was a devastating scene. There were two main aspects that really troubled me. One, that there was even an attempt to discuss the debt and the reparation from BP in monetary terms, which seemed absurd – a category mistake. Can you pay the fish and the birds? How do you pay back an ecosystem with money? And two, that the controversial choice to use toxic dispersants so liberally may have been motivated primarily by the attempt to keep people from knowing how huge the spill was, how much oil was released, and what that looks like. Two hundred million gallons of oil! Exxon Valdez was 32 million! Casi Callaway, the Mobile Baykeeper, believes that most of that just sunk to the bottom and was broken up by the dispersant into bite-sized, bio-available morsels for all the species in the Gulf .... We won't know the long-term effect on that ecosystem for 20 years or more.
AC: It must be challenging to make a film adaptation of a book that's essentially an extended essay.
JB: I have never adapted a book before, although I have often dealt with other artists. In order for it to work as a film, I needed to find real, embodied, visceral examples of the abstract ideas in the book. Once I figured out those stories, the challenge became how to integrate Atwood into the mix. I wanted her to be an author rather than a traditional subject. So instead of interviewing her about why she wrote the book, she is the embodiment of the book in some sense. Her words in the film are the original words from her lectures.
Interweaving four stories is tricky, because the integrity of each has to strengthen the integrity of the whole film rather than diminish it. Finding the rhythm of how to sew them together, as well as how many times to come back to each and how to resolve them at the end, was a big challenge. I started to think of it like this: Atwood's words are the thread; the stories are the beads. But I don't really write a strict script or treatment – I think that is close to impossible in documentary. So the structure is basically determined in the editing room.
AC: What was Ms. Atwood's reaction to the film?
JB: There were six people in a huge theatre when she watched it for the first time: Atwood; her husband, the writer Graeme Gibson; the publisher of the book; me; Nick de Pencier (the cinematographer and my husband); and my producer, Ravida Din. I watched the back of Atwood's head for 90 minutes in a state of deep anxiety. Then when we emerged from the darkness and she was effusive about how much she liked it, I felt giddy with relief and promptly had a large glass of scotch!
AFS Doc Nights screens Payback on Wednesday, June 13, 7pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar (1120 S. Lamar), followed by a Skype conversation with Jennifer Baichwal. For more info, see www.austinfilm.org.