Embarking on just another book tour was not going to cut it for literary icon Margaret Atwood.
The celebrated Canadian writer was approaching her 70th birthday and had just published her latest novel, The Year of the Flood, a dystopian vision of a pandemic that wipes out most of human life.
Her 2009 tour of the U.K. and North America would require something more ambitious and meaningful, she decided. Perhaps some props and amateur local thespians.
Filled with humour, heart and an earnest eco-conscience, the documentary In the Wake of the Flood chronicles Atwood's unusual book tour.
The author incorporated a series of grassroots theatrical productions based on The Year of the Flood into her book tour and used the tour to raise awareness of the preservation of bird habitats and promote Birdlife International, an alliance of bird conservation groups.
"What attracted me to filming Margaret was, here was an artist who was using her celebrity status for a cause — it wasn't to sell more books," says director Ron Mann.
"And birds, in particular, I had no interest in, personally, because I live in downtown Toronto. I was completely oblivious to birds. But then, when you start noticing birds, and then you realize they're part of an invisible landscape, they're part of biodiversity."
Mann's previous docs include Know Your Mushrooms; Grass; and the 2003 film Go Further about an environmental awareness campaign organized by actor Woody Harrelson.
Film festival opener
In the Wake of the Flood opens the eco-focused Planet in Focus Festival in Toronto on Wednesday, ahead of an expected DVD release later this year and a TV broadcast slated for the Documentary Channel in early 2011.
Aside from revealing Atwood's ecological dedication, Mann's behind-the-scenes film offers a rare peek into quiet moments with the literary giant: there's Atwood clipping a bouquet of flowers in her lush backyard, flipping through a family photo album with partner Graeme Gibson and teasingly offering a glimpse at notes for a new novel in her sunny writing room.
She reveals some spark during her environmentally focused tour, grinning impishly as local singers, musicians and actors gamely perform a playlet drawn from her text, including singing hymns from the novel.
A visit to the bird exhibit at New York's American Museum of Natural History turns into a mini eco-lesson in which Atwood notes there are a lot fewer birds now than 10 years ago.
"The things that are killing them are eventually going to kill us," says Atwood. "They are the canaries in the coal mine."
Later, she urges the college crowd at a reading in Cambridge, Mass., to pledge to only drink shade-grown coffee, which is grown under a canopy of trees and thereby preserves bird sanctuaries.
Mann says he sought to capture the loose, summer-camp feel of the earnest stage productions that took place in several cities, including Edinburgh, London, Sudbury, Ont., and Kingston, Ont.
"I like the spirit of it, and I like the community aspect of it," Mann said. "It's uplifting. It's a reminder that there are all these people who represent environmental and social justice movements, and they're out there working in communities all over the place."
But mostly, he felt the unusual tour needed to be recorded for posterity.
Filming a CanLit icon
"I thought, 'Someone should film Margaret,' because it sounded so fascinating, what she was doing," says Mann, who shares an agent with Atwood.
"For me, the concern is cultural history, and this is Margaret Atwood, and this is Margaret Atwood reinventing the book tour. I thought, 'How tragic this would be if there was nobody that would film this for posterity.' So, it was about an archive project, for me."
Mann says Atwood's passion has converted him to shade-grown coffee and even has him picking up a pair of binoculars to do some bird-watching. But despite her obvious passion, Atwood is reluctant to call herself an activist.
"She will call herself a writer, which is what she is," Mann said.
"[But] she's involved with PEN and she's involved with Amnesty International and so many different causes. More recently, she was walking with protesters in Kingston to allow prisoners to grow their own food. She's amazing. Really, she's a hero, and I make films about my heroes. She's a really inspiring Canadian icon."