TORONTO (Reuters) - When director Jennifer Baichwal was asked to turn novelist Margaret Atwood's book about debt into a documentary, she declined, scared that the topic was about money. Three years later, film complete, she was terrified to show her literary hero the result.
The Emmy-winning filmmaker needn't have worried on either count. Atwood's book, "Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth" is more about moral debt than financial, and Baichwal's film of the same name clearly impressed the internationally renowned writer with its stories of a blood feud, a field-worker crusade for better treatment, and a massive oil spill.
"I think it is brilliant. A chapter-by-verse illustration of my book wouldn't have been nearly as interesting," Atwood said in an interview ahead of the March 16 Canadian premiere of the documentary.
In "Payback", Atwood argues the debtor-creditor relationship is everywhere. "We think of debt as being about credit cards, or mortgages, or economies of countries like the Greek debt. But those are all really pretty abstract things," Atwood said. "Whereas if you view it in terms of owing and being owed, it's something that permeates our life every day as social beings."
When Atwood gave her approval to the film's depiction of her ideas, Baichwal, whose award-winning documentaries have covered topics as diverse as acts of God in Appalachia, and art in industrial disaster, sat down for a large glass of scotch, relieved.
"She is somebody who has loomed large in my life. I've read all of her books," she said. "Sometimes I just pinch myself - I'm sitting on a plane going to Sundance with Margaret Atwood. I've actually finished a film that is based on her book."
The film opened at Sundance in January and was picked up by Zeitgeist Films. It opens in New York on April 25, with other U.S. and European release dates to follow.
Baichwal's anxiety was understandable. Atwood, 72, is Canada's best-known writer with novels including "The Handmaid's Tale" and "Alias Grace." Nominated for Britain's Booker Prize five times, she won in 2000 for "The Blind Assassin."
Working with her, however, turned out to be far easier than Baichwal had thought.
"She's a very funny, engaging companion. And I think I was surprised by how easy that was," Baichwal said. "I loved being with her. And believe me, it was scary showing her the film."
"Payback", a nonfiction study of personal, moral and cosmic debt, came out in late 2008, just as a U.S. housing debt crisis tipped the world into the worst recession since the 1930s.
The author said writing about a still timely issue helped her realize how much she owes artists who have gone before.
"Anybody practicing in the creative arts is somebody who has received, and therefore owes," Atwood said. "Thank you, William Shakespeare, I owe you."
For Baichwal, Atwood's treatise called for the use of graphic examples of debtors and creditors across time zones and social strata, resulting in a trilingual film in English, Albanian and Spanish, with English subtitles.
The topics: A vengeful blood feud in the mountains of modern Albania. The plight of Florida migrant workers harvesting tomatoes for pennies a pound. The remorse of a petty criminal and the exasperation of a famous crook. And the devastation of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Baichwal, who took three years to write, shoot and edit the film, said she kept expecting the global focus on the debt crisis that dominated headlines in 2008 and 2009 to fade before the film could be made. "Inside Job", a movie looking at the root causes of the crisis, last year won the Oscar for best documentary.
"The fact is that it seems to be getting worse. In that respect, you can say the book was extremely timely and the film continues to be relevant because of the issues that we're going through," Baichwal said.
Atwood argues the debtor-creditor relationship pulses through daily life as karma, from allowing a car to cut in ahead of you - and expecting a wave of thanks in return - to the give-and-take between reporter and promoter on a film tour.
"So at the end of (this interview) we will each say thank you and the scales will be even. Unless of course you make the terrible mistake of saying bad things about me, in which case the Great Pumpkin who views all will take a dim view. You don't want to do that," Atwood said with a laugh.
"It won't be me paying you back, but you have to be careful about those sorts of things."
Editing by Peter Galloway