TORONTO — Seasoned documentary filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal says she had a quick answer when asked if she would adapt a Margaret Atwood book for the big screen: No.
Despite being a longtime fan of the legendary novelist, Baichwal says she couldn’t imagine how to wrestle Atwood’s non-fiction Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth into a film when approached by a National Film Board of Canada producer.
Part of the problem, she admits, was that she hadn’t read the collection of essays and assumed it was all about the financial collapse.
She soon learned it was far from that, delving instead into a broad rumination on the concept of debt itself and the various ways in which notions of obligation and reward play out in history, literature, law and religion.
“Of course I should have known — because I’ve read everything Atwood has ever written — that it would not be what I expected,” Baichwal says.
But whether that made the book any easier to adapt is debatable — after a year of reading and re-reading Baichwal notes she still couldn’t see a way to make a film out of Atwood’s abstract ideas.
So she gave up.
Instead, Baichwal began looking for real-world examples of debt and reparation, and then things started to click.
“You couldn’t call it a literal adaptation, it’s not a literal translation of the book at all,” Baichwal says of what resulted.
“It’s actually an attempt to intelligently translate what happens in the book into a cinematic realm, into a medium that makes sense for film.”
Stories include a long-standing blood feud between two Albanian families over a land dispute. An old tribal law allows the wronged party to kill any member of his enemy’s clan if they leave their home, in this case essentially confining a family of six to their modest farm while they slowly starve.
A look at the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico raises a difficult question: What happens when the debt is so great it can’t be paid back?
Atwood, whose lectures on debt in 2008 form a narrative framework for the film, says she never considered the cinematic possibilities of the essays and refers to Baichwal’s interpretation as “brilliant and engrossing.”
“I was intrigued because it wasn’t a chapter-and-verse illustration, it was a separate thing,” says Atwood, whose novels The Handmaid’s Tale and The Robber Bride were turned into films, while Alias Grace is being adapted by actress-turned-director Sarah Polley.
“It was a reincarnation and it was a playing out of these ideas on a really physical, tangible, immediate daily level.”
Baichwal says earning Atwood’s approval was important to her.
, recalling a “nerve-racking” meeting in 2009 when she and NFB producer Ravida Din outlined their plan for the Booker Prize-winning author.
“We went and sat down with Margaret at her kitchen table and I was so scared of her formidable intellect,” admits Baichwal, whose past collaborations include photographer Edward Burtynsky for the Sundance smash “Manufactured Landscapes.”
“I just thought she could look at this and say, ’That’s ridiculous,’ and what would I do then? But she was so generous and curious…. And she was completely open about it. She said, ’That’s a great idea.’ ”
The film’s other tales of debt and reparation include the plight of mistreated tomato pickers in Florida at the hands of big-business bosses and imprisoned media mogul Conrad Black and his legal battle with the U.S. justice system.
“The interesting thing about Conrad is: No. 1, he agreed to be in the film — which is a jolly good sport of him right there — but No. 2, I think through having the experience that he’s had … has made him think quite differently about … prisons in our society and whether they’re even working or not,” says Atwood.
Scenes with Black were shot at his Florida home in 2010 while he was out on an appeal that eventually overturned two of his three fraud convictions. He returned to prison in September 2011 to serve the rest of his sentence, which includes a charge of obstruction of justice. He’s scheduled to be released May 5.
“Most people, when they think about somebody who’s in jail, have a very stereotypical idea of what someone in jail … looks like. And Conrad Black is not that person,” says Baichwal, who has reunited with Burtynsky to embark on another film project, this time about water.
“I actually think he’s been quite transformed by his experience there.”
“Payback” opens Friday in Toronto and Montreal before heading to other Canadian cities.