Apr. 25, 2012 - Issue #862: The Real Deal
Margaret Atwood and director Jennifer Baichwal weigh in on Payback
Metro Cinema at the Garneau
Jennifer Baichwal's Payback is at once the most liberal and most faithful of literary adaptations. Taking the philosophical foundation, inquisitive spirit and something of the structure of Margaret Atwood's 2008 book and lecture of the same name, Baichwal explores the idea of debt and reciprocation through a diverse set of real-life narratives entirely separate from those Atwood employs, including a blood feud between two Northern Albanian families, a dispute between an organization of exploited migrant workers and Pacific Tomato Growers, and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, this last one being a devastating example of the sort of debt that probably can't be repaid.
Payback also features commentary from authors such as William Rees (Our Ecological Footprint) and Raj Patel (The Value of Nothing), as well as, most surprisingly, former media mogul Conrad Black, who speaks of the penal system with which he's now familiar and even gives a reading from Atwood's book. (If there's anything in Payback that compromises its cinematic power slightly it's the fact that there's an awful lot of scenes of people reading off paper.) To borrow Baichwal's own metaphor, the thread that strings all of these beads together is Atwood herself, who appears intermittently as the writer-at-work and offers key selections from the book in voice-over. In terms of its MO, Payback's most notable predecessor is probably Baichwal's previous and most sui generis film, Act of God, which similarly explored the idea of chance though disparate stories of people being struck by lightning or otherwise affected by the unpredictable nature of electrical currents.
Baichwal and Atwood spoke to Vue Weekly in early March, after Payback's Sundance screening and before it began to appear in Canadian theatres.
VUE WEEKLY: If I understand correctly, your producer, Ravida Din, purchased the option on Payback and then asked you to adapt it.
JENNIFER BAICHWAL: That's right. When Ravida approached me I immediately said no because I was under the impression the book was about financial transactions. I thought that I wouldn't be good at that. After I read Payback I realized it was about everything. How we interact, how we interpret our relationship with the planet. I thought it was a really unbelievable book. But it still took a year of reading and research and writing before coming up with an idea that seemed like a film.
VW: I think of your films as difficult to synopsize yet operating within a precise and focused stream of themes. Payback is like a spiral moving through a pie chart.
MARGARET ATWOOD: I think of Jennifer's work as a place where a fairly abstract idea intersects with the point where you might die. It's the vertical intersecting with the horizontal. Here's the idea, then here's the consequence of the idea, the moment when the lightning strikes.
JB: Or, in this case, here's this meta-idea of debt. What are the manifestations of indebtedness? How does the relationship between the creditor and debtor play out? I'm always interested in these kinds of ideas, especially as they're dealt with in the book, which connects these things that you wouldn't think would be connected at all. Experiments with cabbage and monkeys, sin eaters, blood feuds—they're disparate but connected, just as the disparate stories in the film are connected. I often get criticized for not coming to hard conclusions. I don't think we should underestimate the intelligence of an audience, that we should lead them in a linear way to a particular place. So the films are elliptical.
VW: Perhaps some people mistake your films for activist films.
JB: They're not, but if they're interpreted that way, fantastic. If it means that people stop buying tomatoes at Publix Supermarket because they don't sign the Fair Food agreement, fantastic. If it prompts them to boycott BP, excellent. Activist films are generally very big on telling you what to think and do. They follow a certain arc, with a bunch of experts telling you how bad everything is and then in the last five minutes telling you that if you don't drink bottled water everything will be OK. I'm being overly simplistic, but I do think they tend to follow a certain framework.
VW: I regard Payback as an essay film. It allows itself to move between things that, as you say, don't connect in a way that's necessarily obvious. So it isn't explicit interconnectivity that guides you through Payback, nor is it polemic—it's the author's particular gaze.
JB: I do like the idea of having a structure that isn't tangential exactly, but flexible. The way Margaret's words are woven into Payback are meant to simply give a little context. Like Ed Burtynsky's words in Manufactured Landscapes. He gives a little context for what you're looking at without telling you what you're looking at. That's an important distinction. When people offer commentary in Payback I didn't want them to be pronouncing on or explaining the film's stories. That would be condescending, creating a power relationship with the commentators on top and the subjects below. I wanted the speaker's words to simply open up your understanding. So we have William Rees saying humans are a rogue species. I like that. Certainly when you look at the situation in the Gulf of Mexico, Rees' statement seems like a very plausible interpretation of how humans interact with the natural world.
VW: Were there stories that you pursued but didn't make it into the movie?
JB: We were considering human trafficking stories. But one of the problems with that is that it's a kind of slavery. You really can't relate to both sides of it. It's just evil. That level of moral repugnance obscures the idea of indebtedness, whereas in the Albanian blood feud there are two viable sides. It's an intractable situation, but you can understand both perspectives. At least I could.
MA: Each side has a different story to tell, so in the absence of witnesses, who knows which is right? It's one of those Rashomon scenarios, except there's no ghost to tell us what really happened.
VW: To what degree was the film a collaboration between you two?
MA: It wasn't one in the sense that I was standing beside Jennifer or participating in her decisions. It was more a matter of talking a great deal at the beginning and then having her go away and come back to surprise me. Which she did.
JB: We shot for a year, and that included some shooting with Margaret. Then we did a year of editing and she didn't see anything during that time. Though I certainly imagined her being over my shoulder watching everything I was doing. [Laughs]
VW: Could either of you articulate what you'd ideally like a viewer to walk away with after seeing Payback?
MA: Probably the first thing that should happen is that the viewer reviews their own life and assesses what it is they might owe or are owed. The second thing would be asking the question about how we relate to everything outside of ourselves. As I say, somewhat direly, you got every atom in your body from somewhere, and one day you're going to pay them all back. That's what they used to call paying your debt to nature. Quite rightly.
JB: Similarly, I feel there's this possibility that you can shift someone's consciousness about something by creating a space where they can engage in an act of sustained attention. That's a huge thing for me, the grand goal, to be able to do exactly that.
Directed by: Jennifer Baichwal
Vue respects your privacy. We will not forward your personal information to any other organization except as required by law, and will use your e-mail address only to respond to your comments. We reserve the right to edit and remove comments for length, clarity and/or if they are illegal or inappropriate. Your email address is never shown to visitors to vueweekly.com. Read the whole policy at: http://vueweekly.com/privacy