Given our proximity, you probably have your opinions about Fort McMurray and the massive environmental issues encircling the place. But those opinions probably don't extend deep into the human element of making a modern-day boomtown livable; sure, there's money and trucks and a dangerous highway, but what does a resident do when they aren't working? How do you find peace and a sense of pride when you're living in a controversial, transient place where many of your peers come to make a mountain of money and then leave?
These questions form the heart of Oil Sands Karaoke, Charles Wilkinson's documentary that focuses its lens on the human element of McMurray, particularly five singers who happen to be regulars at a little pub's karaoke night. They range from Massey, a young entrepreneur who's also one of the city's only drag queens; Brandy, who drives the world's largest truck out at site; Dan, a fellow who stays and works due to family obligations and debt; Chad, a once-rising singer who's seen setbacks; and Jarrod Saunders, head of Keyano College's Students' Union.
Point of view is one of the film's strengths. It doesn't shy away from the environmental issues, but Oil Sands Karaoke filters everything through a social, rather than political-issue view; we see five people trying to make sense of a place that, it turns out, can be just as difficult to understand from the inside.
In advance of Global Visions' presentation of the film this wekeend, director Charles Wilkinson took a break from editing his next work—a short about Bill Kinsella—to discuss the movie, earning trust in Fort McMurray and finding permission to shoot footage of the massive oil projects.
VUE WEEKLY: Did you go up to Fort McMurray knowing the kind of documentary you were looking to make?
CHARLES WILKINSON: We [Wilkinson and producer Tina Schliessler] knew almost exactly what we were going to do. That was the concept: karaoke contest in the oil sands [laugh].
VW: How did you first become aware of that? What intrigued you about it?
CW: We discovered Fort McMurray, and spent some time up there in a previous film, Peace Out. And at one point, we went into a karaoke bar and saw that there was something really complex and fascinating going on, and that really led to a lot of thought and study and discussion, which ended up being the decision to make the next film about karaoke in Fort Mac.
VW: Your website notes you weren't immediately trusted up there. Why do you think that was, and how did you go about earning that trust?
CW: I think that anyone who goes to Fort McMurray with a camera now, or is a reporter, is inclined to be mistrusted by most people there, basically because the place has been treated so harshly in the press and many people feel treated unfairly. People there in general: companies, workers, kids, everybody. I'm sure the dogs and cats tend to distrust people with cameras. It certainly felt that way.
But the people we dealt with, we made our best effort to convince people we weren't there for a quick story, for the usual, “the smell of bitumen and drugs and prostitution” kind of thing that people often write about Fort Mac. And gradually, we earned people's trust, when they saw we were there to do something a little bit more insightful and true than that.
And also, we were really curious: to find out what it's like to live and work in Fort Mac, but also what it's like to live under that kind of a cloud. Because all of these people have families somewhere else and they go home for Thanksgiving, and invariably there's gonna be someone at the table who thinks they're, y'know, a horrible human being because they're destroying the earth one load of bitumen at a time.
VW: What was it like getting permission to shoot out at [the tar sands] sites?
CW: That was a long process. I was kind of gratified that the process was … it was long and drawn out, but I think that the concerns that public relations reps had tended to revolve around us not getting run over by haul trucks, and by not disturbing the flow of production, than they were any political restraint.
Our last film dealt with Fort McMurray and most people felt that, although it wasn't saying this is the greatest thing since sliced bread, there were also no cheap shots whatsoever in it. It was a serious discussion and a responsible discussion. So that probably helped, but I have to say, at the end of the day, the folks at both Suncore and Syncrude, they kind of bent over backwards to help us out. For a very short period of time—but you have to understand how much money's at stake. A load of bitumen's $20 000. If we delay that by one load, that's $20 000. I understand that. But they did cut Dan, the country and western guy, loose with his big haul truck, and we had him with us for a good three quarters of an hour, maybe. They did that for us. That was pretty remarkable.
Sat, Sep 21 (7 pm)
Metro Cinema at the Garneau