An outsider’s take on the oilsands


A fair representation of the oilsands can be hard to come by in this part of the world. With a cacophony of voices shouting about whether getting in bed with bitumen has ultimately been beneficial or bad for us, maybe an outside perspective is what has been lacking. English filmmaker Thomas Seal just wrapped about a month of filming in Fort McMurray for a documentary about the oilsands he’s hoping to finish by February 1.

“The working title is The Ooze,” Seal says, “which is the description the 19th-century biologist John Macoun gave to the oilsands when he first saw them—this bitumen kind of just coming out of the river banks. He called it the ooze and I thought that was a really evocative description and I thought it sort of describes how the oilsands have oozed into everything else about life around here.”

In fact, it was studying for a year abroad at the University of Alberta that gave Seal his first impression of how the oilsands affects the lives of everyday Albertans.

“I noticed that people my age had no concerns about money or about what they were going to be doing after they graduated at all,” Seal recalls. “Where I’m from—even from quite good universities—you’re expected to go through this purgatory of unpaid internships and working as a waiter or whatever. These guys mentioned the rigs and that they would be fine and I was like, what is that? So that was what initially got me researching and it opened up into this minefield of issues about environmentalism, treaty rights, business ethics, government sovereignty, the boundary between government and industry—just this huge nexus of issues.”

Seal notes that in Alberta most things are created from oil money, whether directly or indirectly, whereas in Britain, because the oilsands are not in their backyard, people don’t think about them in much other than an academic sort of way.

“I mean the University of Alberta itself wouldn’t exist were it not for its long history of providing technology to those places. It pioneered the first oilsands technologies,” Seal says.

After graduating from the University of London last summer, Seal was given a grant from the university to do a project of his choosing, £2000 to make it happen (about $3600 Canadian) and a message to come back with something interesting.

He says people have asked him what his angle is, but says that he doesn’t really have one.

“I think that so much of the press about the oilsands is so shrill and partisan already, that people just read what they already agree with and you get these echo chambers of industry is A-ok or industry is evil, and there’s not much dialogue between them,” Seal says. “So it might be a bit overreaching or ambitious, but I would like to make something that maybe both sides could watch and agree with some bits and disagree with some bits.”

This plan turned out to be much easier in theory than in practice. Seal says it has been difficult to get all parties to speak equally—but not for lack of effort on his part.

“Industry were not forthcoming at all with people to talk to. I messaged and phoned every single major energy company in Calgary and a couple of them responded asking, ‘So what are you going to be showing? And where is this going to be seen?’ And after I told them, they weren’t interested.”

Seal is going to submit the documentary to film festivals in the United Kingdom and will also make it available for free on Vimeo and YouTube. He says he ended up speaking to more people with left-leaning views than those in the industry as the latter were uncooperative, but that he’s got no prejudice of his own.

“I really don’t want to be one of these foreigners who comes over here and says their piece and runs away again, because Albertans deserve more than that,” Seal says. “I want it to be balanced. I don’t want to say oilsands are unethical therefore they should all be shut down because that’s ridiculous. They provide the livelihoods of literally millions of people and comfort for tens of millions of people across North America, so I think what is needed now is a reasoned discussion from both sides, because that’s what’s lacking in my opinion.”



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