Directors Nancy Lang and Peter Raymont spend two years jetting around the world trying to keep pace with the award-winning author of The Handmaid’s Tale, to capture memorable moments of her monumental life for their documentary feature film Margaret Atwood: A Word after a Word after a Word is Power.
Lang and Raymont help to break with the tradition of under-appreciating our high-achievers by shining a light on Atwood, her contribution to defining the Canadian literary identity, her impression on the northern geological mythology and her overall influence on our world view. The high-point is, she’s still around to appreciate it.
The filmmakers allow us to catch a glimpse of the quick-witted poet’s seldom-seen private life, as well as her public life. We see her traversing lakes and rivers, vacationing with her family, canoeing in Northern Ontario and again in Iceland, speaking in front of large audiences, sitting still to write the final chapters of her latest novel, visiting the set of The Handmaid’s Tale, and spending time with her late-partner Graeme Gibson. At times both worlds intertwine as is the case when she tours the world but takes on the role of caretaker for her husband as his dementia progresses.
Actress Tatiana Maslany recites poetry and prose at the outset of the film about Atwood’s life and career. Along with multiple clips from award shows, Atwood is inundated with accolades from long-time friends and colleagues, many of them prominent personalities themselves; poets, writers and broadcasters among them. We hear from her dear friend and former governor general of Canada, journalist Adrienne Clarkson and actress Sarah Polley, writer and producer of the big screen version of Atwood’s Alias Grace. We also meet Atwood’s ex-husband, and her former roommate from Harvard. We hear personal stories about her that we haven’t heard anywhere else, mixed in with footage from the archives.
“I never thought that I would be a popular writer. I only wanted to be a good one.”
Her work has won a long list of awards over the years, starting with her first book of poetry, The Circle Game (1964), written while she was still studying at Harvard and for which she was recognized with the Governor General’s Award. There would be many more awards, but Atwood’s popularity has risen to new heights since the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Her presence can create a frenzy in public, some of it political and controversial because of her ability to capture and reflect the crucial social issues of the times in her work. But mostly, fans are just excited to meet her wherever she goes. As an octogenarian with two million followers on Twitter, she has become a cultural phenomenon in her late years. But in earnest, Atwood says, “I never thought that I would be a popular writer. I only wanted to be a good one.”
We see recent footage of Atwood in Hay-on-Wyre, Wales, at the Hay Literary Festival where she is followed by a flock of silent “handmaidens” in full costume from head-to-toe. A cluster of red cloaks float in unison behind her, white bags slung low across their bodies, and their white bonnets keep them from seeing and their faces from being seen. It’s a walking tribute to Atwood, one that she couldn’t ignore. She kindly poses for pictures with them.
The Hay festival’s director thinks that Atwood’s popularity shows her relevance even more now, over 30 years after the novel was first released.
“Nobody figured out that ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was really Harvard.”
The crew follows along as Atwood interacts with students in Chicago, visits pristine areas in Iceland, again in a canoe dipping oars in the cold water along the snow-banked shore, and on the nature path at the bird observatory she and Gibson established on Pelee Island in Ontario. The camera crew greets her when she pops out of her hotel in Amsterdam and they’re there to capture her chit-chats with admirers as she’s often recognized, and followed, even in the most unexpected places. In a gallery in Amsterdam she is circled by a bookseller and his very adult son from Montreal in an art gallery. They immediately recognize and approach her. She interacts with them as if they were old acquaintances. They tell her stories of being at a number of her talks years before, ask for a photograph on their cellphone, and she says yes. One never knows what unkind things people will say about you on social media if you refuse them a photo or an autograph.
The film mixes the past and the present. The audience journeys along on what is essentially a tour to promote The Testaments, Atwood’s follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale. We go behind-the-scenes of the TV series where she hangs out with lead actress Elisabeth Moss on set. We attend rehearsals with Atwood for her role playing an assistant to Aunt Lydia where she practices slapping Moss’ character Offred in the back of the head with a good hand.
We eavesdrop on the conversation between Atwood and Moss as she describes her new book, which we now know as the 2019 co-winner of the Booker Prize, an award she shares with Bernardine Evaristo for Man, Woman, Other. “The Testaments has a more complicated structure than The Handmaid’s Tale,” Atwood tells Moss. “It doesn’t have a single narrator. One is a young girl growing up in Gilead, suitably attired,” as she shows her one of two cover images, not in the red we associate with the old Gilead but in a “vivid shade of spring green and on the back is someone from our culture in the future who looks quite different.”
It wasn’t necessarily the popularity of the television series that made her want to write a follow-up story. “What did it, of course, was Trump being elected,” she says, calmly. “Circumstances changed. What we thought was true wasn’t true anymore. It motivated me to write it the same way the arrival of the ‘80s kicked off The Handmaid’s Tale, because everything started to go the other way around in the ‘80s.”
We follow her to meet with Ane Crabtree, the costume designer of the red robes worn by protesters for women’s rights around the world and to Harvard, the inspiration and setting for The Handmaid’s Tale. Not only do we see the actual buildings that Atwood based the places on in the book, we get an exclusive tour of the campus accompanied by her Radcliffe College roommate from her days as a grad student there.
The book is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a liberal, democratic town that had its roots in puritan theocracy, says Atwood. Still, “Nobody figured out that The Handmaid’s Tale was really Harvard.”
She walks around the campus pointing out locations in the book and adapted TV drama series. “Widener Library is the head of the secret service and the Harvard Coop is where you get automated prayers and the Brattle Theatre is where you …” She walks slowly along a stone path with her former roommate and gestures to an area where the bodies were hung, as opposed to where they were displayed, as if they were recounting a memory.
Toronto International Festival of Authors, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and the film’s production company White Pine Pictures present the world premiere screening of Margaret Atwood: A Word after a Word after a Word is Power at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Nov. 7, followed by an onstage conversation and audience Q&A session with Lang and Raymont. The film then goes to Amsterdam and the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto (Box office).
A slightly different version of this article was published on Medium.
Changed on Nov. 12, 2019, 8:10 p.m. to say: Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, from Hot Docs Festival