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Sundance: A documentary about debt offers a big 'Payback'

Published January 23, 2012 4:22 pm

Sundance • What goes around comes around, and around, in Jennifer Baichwal's bracing film.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Jennifer Baichwal, one of Canada's top-flight documentary filmmakers, has chronicled everything from the writer's life ("Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles") to the select few among us who've been struck by lightning and lived to tell about it ("Act of God").

For her newest film, she cashed in her directing talents to tell the story of debt, a subject that strikes dread in most of us, as the experience of being in debt is one of the most vexing in all human experience. Thanks to novelist Margaret Atwood's recent book Payback, however, Baichwal had an expert guide to lead her through the maze of implications the word brings. Translating Atwood's essay-like book into documentary film wasn't an easy task but, said Baichwal by phone from her Toronto home, there was never a dull moment.

What was it like to work with Margaret Atwood?

Her books are almost required reading if you grow up in Canada. I was almost nervous about meeting her because she's so intelligent and articulate, but she puts you so much at ease. As intelligent as she is, she never makes you feel that you're not on her level. As Mark Twain said, "Really great people make you feel that you, too, can become great."

This is a very unusual book to adapt to film, in that's it's not a traditional or fictional narrative, but assembled from a series of Atwood's lectures. Can you think of another film adapted from a lecture?

"An Inconvenient Truth" comes immediately to mind. But what really captivates about Margaret's book is how it lays out a map that can be applied to almost all of humanity and all of history.

What was especially challenging about turning the issues explored by Atwood's book into a film?

Through years of teaching film and making film, you learn that you can't create a successful documentary unless the visual environment and the ideas you're working meld, so that the ideas you're exploring come alive in the visual and visceral sense. Otherwise, you've just got talking heads and cutaways, some of which are meaningless, like someone driving in a car with a voiceover.

The concept of debt carries so many similarities to revenge in geopolitical conflicts, and you traveled to Albania to document two warring factions. What did you learn about what it takes to transcend conflict while putting this film together?

A lot of people talk about creating a "blank slate" that might allow people embroiled in conflict to forget the past or wipe away what's happened to them. The people I talked to in Albania were so enmeshed in the feud between their clans that it was almost impossible to see a way out for them. It's important to understand that all of us could find ourselves living out these kinds of eternal grudges in the same way. It's also important to understand that there's no one way or answer in getting people to move forward after living through an injustice. One of the most important lessons to come out of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission was that you have to find a way to move forward while still acknowledging injustice or a wrong done. There are different ways forward depending on the nature of the conflict.

In her book, Atwood explores the metaphorical meanings of debt in Christianity. How did your segment with theologian Karen Armstrong extend that metaphor?

She believes all cultures throughout history are built upon indebtedness, or various kinds of injustice. There's always an elite that advances the civilization built upon the backs of 90 percent of the population. So there's this idea of indebtedness globally that is a crushing weight, and that can only be alleviated through mindfulness and awareness.

Many people are familiar with Atwood and Armstrong. Perhaps not so much with Raj Patel, a British-born economist and writer. Can you describe his role in the film?

He's great at illuminating the torturous interconnections of all these things. There's really no way to buy a tomato in a supermarket without participating in a whole range of political acts. He's unique in that he remind us how much the food we eat really costs when we sit down to a meal, or even a cup of coffee. The soup you eat could cost $16, and a cup of coffee could cost $7 if we really understood the costs involved in harvesting tomatoes or coffee. And once you see the world that way, you cannot "unsee" it. You cannot go back.

bfulton@sltrib.com

Twitter: @Artsalt

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'Payback' screenings

Friday, Jan. 20, 6 p.m. • Yarrow Hotel, Park City

Sunday, Jan. 22, noon • Broadway Centre Cinema, Salt Lake City

Monday, Jan. 23, 3:30 p.m. • Redstone Cinema 8, Park City

Wednesday, Jan. 25, 6 p.m. •Temple Theatre, Park City

Friday, Jan. 27, 3:15 p.m. • Holiday Village Cinema 2, Park City