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Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary Payback owes its existence to Margaret Atwood

(Photo: National Film Board of Canada)

While it may be inaccurate to call Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary Payback a direct adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s best-selling book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (House of Anansi Press), the venerable author’s thoughts on justice and reparation remain at the heart of the film.

What happens when people don’t pay their debts, or can’t pay their debts, or won’t pay their debts? What if the debt is one that by its very nature cannot be repaid, Atwood muses on camera.

Baichwal (director of the acclaimed 2006 documentary Manufactured Landscapes) gives a human face to the concepts explored in Atwood’s book, which originated as a five-part Massey Lecture series in 2008. The film follows several storylines, including the plight of exploited Florida tomato farmers, the 2012 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and convicted thief Paul Mohammed, whose personal tale of incarceration is contrasted with that of media mogul Conrad Black, who is interviewed in his Palm Springs home while out on bail.

According to a story in The Globe and Mail, Atwood vowed she would never give a Massey lecture after book rights for the long-standing lecture series threatened to go to Penguin and away from the House of Anansi Press, with which Atwood has a long attachment. When Anansi retained the rights, Atwood said she was morally obligated to participate.

In the last scene of the documentary, several interviewees read excerpts from the book, including Black, economist Raj Patel, and a rural Albanian man whose family has been living under house arrest since he was accused of shooting his neighbour over an escalating land dispute.

Anansi publicist Kate McQuaid says the company is thrilled with the film, and has been blanketing Toronto retailers with copies of the book. Anansi also produced a special Payback bookmark, which was distributed to guests at a V.I.P. preview screening, held at the TIFF Lightbox theatre on March 14.

Payback, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, opens in Toronto and Montreal on March 16, in Vancouver on March 23, with future releases planned for Victoria, Ottawa, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Waterloo, and Saskatoon. Baichwal and Atwood will conduct a Q&A following the 6:30 p.m. screenings at Toronto’s Varsity Theatre on March 16 and 17. Atwood will also be interviewed by Matt Galloway, host of CBC Radio’s Metro Morning, at a free event on March 18 (3 p.m., Indigo Manulife Centre, Toronto).