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Margaret Atwood is the subject of the new documentary A Word after a Word after a Word is Power.

Peter Bregg/White Pine Pictures

  • MARGARET ATWOOD A Word after a Word after a Word is Power
  • Directed by Nancy Lang and Peter Raymont
  • Classification N/A
  • 93 minutes

rating

MARGARET ATWOOD A Word after a Word after a Word is Power is the first authorized documentary in 35 years to chronicle the legacy and relevance of Canadian literary grand poobah Margaret Atwood. Filmmakers Nancy Lang and Peter Raymont were given considerable access to the writer, documenting her personal and professional engagements around the world at various writer’s festivals, birding trips and even the wedding of her childhood friend, artist Charles Pachter, where she served as “handmaiden of honour."

As a result, A Word is a straightforward and mostly chronological attempt at establishing how and why Atwood is such an important figure. It covers all her significant milestones – from her debut, the Governor-General Award-winning poetry book Circle Games, to the international fanfare of the TV incarnation of her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The film relies on archival footage, photographs and past and current interviews with Atwood and her famous friends and fans, as well as members of her inner circle.

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At times, the film can come across as predictable and precious, veering on homegrown clichés. Early on, there is an awkward run-in with a Montreal fan and bookseller in an Amsterdam art gallery, a scene that feels like an obvious effort to establish Atwood as someone of importance, regardless of where she is in this great, big world. A montage of Atwood’s childhood spent largely in the woods (her father was a forest entomologist) is accompanied by a voiceover of her poem You Begin. And, of course, there is footage of Atwood in a canoe.

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Atwood with her long-time partner Graeme Gibson in Iceland.

White Pine Pictures

A Word is successful at relaying all the things Atwood is: literary rock star, enduring feminist, CanLit champion, inadvertent prophet, passionate birder, devoted mother, partner and friend. Yet it misses opportunities to present her in a way that’s less than fawning. The closest we get to any criticism is when Pachter admits that Atwood truly believes she has an answer for everything but doesn’t, even if she believes that she does.

The film touches on her penchant for Twitter, which Atwood describes as a means of “signalling” rather than writing – by drawing attention to matters that need it. In the film, she says she doesn’t identify as an activist but is happy to lend her voice and platform to important causes. We’ve learned in recent years that sometimes Atwood’s words aren’t always hungrily devoured. She encountered headline-making pushback for including her name on an open letter in the UBC Accountable controversy. The criticism seemed to intensify after Atwood penned an op-ed in this newspaper that further explored the importance of providing due process in the wake of the #MeToo movement. It felt startling for some at the time to witness a beloved Canadian icon experience the wrath of Twitter, yet none of this is approached in the film.

While A Word is an insightful and poetic overview of the writer’s career and influence both within the country she’s fervent to represent, and internationally, it lacks the characteristics for which Atwood is often revered in her storytelling: innovation and the capacity to tell hard truths.

Margaret Atwood: A Word After A Word After A Word Is Power traces the career of the acclaimed author as well as that of her late life partner and fellow writer, Graeme Gibson. The Canadian Press

MARGARET ATWOOD A Word after a Word after a Word is Power opens Nov. 8

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