This documentary examines how a Canadian literary icon went from being a much-heralded writer to becoming the prophet of dystopia in a post-Trump world
Featuring: Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, Sarah Polley
Directed by: Nancy Lang & Peter Raymont
Running time: 92 minutes
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
By Jay Stone
There is a very wonderful scene in the documentary MARGARET ATWOOD A Word after a Word after a Word is Power — a complex look at the leading light, if not the inventor, of that strange construction called Canadian Literature, and now also the reigning prophet of the globe’s dystopic future — when Atwood is autographing books, as leading lights and prophets often do. A little girl is standing by, looking at her with the adoration that only a small reader can bring to such occasions.
Atwood asks the girl how old she is and she admits to being seven.
“My goodness,” says the author. “Well, good luck with it.”
It’s a telling moment, not because Atwood is ever anything less than gracious — indeed, alias grace could be on her business cards — but because she is also so fiercely plain-spoken. “Unsettling,” is the word used by Sarah Polley, who adapted Alias Grace into an award-winning TV mini-series. “She’ll say the thing one else will say to you.”
A Word after a Word comes as Atwood, now 79, is entering a new kind of popularity, the kind that takes people from the ordinary fame of Booker awards (she just won her second) to late-night talk shows on American television. Filmmakers Nancy Lang and Peter Raymont followed her around for an eventful year in which the blockbuster adaptation of A Handmaid’s Tale — now recognized as a disturbingly sensitive canary in the Trumpian coalmine — had become an international symbol for oppression. It is also the year that her husband Graeme Gibson died; he is featured in the movie as well, speaking calmly and eloquently about his encroaching dementia. It’s rare to hear a person being so lucid about memory loss.
“A cult and a literary rock star,” someone says about Atwood, and the film takes us through a unique life that started as a little girl in Ottawa (her first memory is of snow, she says, “but let’s not do the psychological deep dive”) to a childhood lived to a large degree outdoors thanks to her father, an entomologist who helped introduce her to nature. She wrote her first book at age seven (“It was about an ant. It was not a great success”) and still recalls watching the surreal ballet film The Red Shoes and taking from it the message that women could not have both a husband and a career. The message, like most received wisdom, was lost on her.
She studied at Harvard where, according to Jim Polk, a fellow student and her first husband, she was the smartest person. She wrote poetry there but was denied access to the men-only library where poetry was archived. The physical landscape of The Handmaid’s Tale is based on the Harvard English department.
Her first book of poetry, The Circle Game, won the Governor General’s Literary Award while she was still in school., but it was still hard to be taken seriously as a professional writer. She relates what sounds like an oft-told anecdote about a book tour for her first novel The Edible Woman, where her first stop was the men’s socks and underwear department of The Hudson Bay Company in Edmonton. (She sold two copies.)
She met Gibson at a party when he had just published the novel Five Legs and she told him it should have won the GG award that year. “That’s a very intelligent woman,” he remembers thinking. They were both married to other people at the time; their early assignations were sometimes carried out in the basement of a bookstore in Toronto, where people learned not to go downstairs if Graeme and Peggy were there.
Much of the movie is aimed at the vast readership of The Handmaid’s Tale (which was written in Berlin on a borrowed typewriter; the signature bonnets of the novel’s handmaids were partly inspired by the frightening figure on cans of Old Dutch cleanser.) The camera follows her to the set of the TV series to meet the star, Elisabeth Moss, and show her the cover art for the sequel, The Testaments.
Through it all, Atwood is the quiet but, well, unsettling presence at the centre. She is both unassuming and formidable. A scene where she is accosted at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam by a fan is an uncomfortable look at the price of fame in a solitary profession. “She really believes she has the answer to anything. And she doesn’t,” says her lifelong friend Charles Pachter, and you get the impression that plain speaking is one of the prerequisites to being a lifelong friend. Someone says she sees more than most people, and we hear her explaining that Twitter — she’s an avid adapter — is not a failed writing system but simply a communications system, like smoke signals.
The remarkable thing about the film is the way Lang and Raymont recognize that they don’t have to do anything remarkable — no cinematic tricks, no animated sequences, no re-enactments — to bring her to life. They just let her be Margaret Atwood, and good luck with it.
World premiere screening and Q&A Nov. 7, 7p.m., TIFF Bell Lightbox, Toronto. Theatrical engagements: Hamilton, Nov. 8 -14, The Playhouse; Waterloo, Nov. 8 – 14, Princess Cinemas; Edmonton, Nov. 11, 13, Metro Cinema; Toronto, Nov. 14-20, 22, 26, 28, Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema; Ottawa, Nov. 13, ByTowne Cinema; IDFA Festival (Amsterdam) Saturday, Nov. 23.