Oil Sands Karaoke hands a mike to Fort McMurray
A documentary by Charles Wilkinson. Unrated.
A barmaid complains that we hear a lot of “bullshit” about Fort McMurray, Alberta, the gateway to the oilsands and the location of Canada’s biggest ongoing environmental disaster. Instead of diving directly into that political quagmire, filmmaker Charles Wilkinson introduces us to a handful of locals who operate gargantuan machinery by day and perform karaoke by night, in a town alternately blighted and booming thanks to our mad, final scramble for those last few drops of the Earth’s blood.
Prepare for toe-curlingly sincere versions of “Achy Breaky Heart”, and the sight of five karaoke contestants trying to rationalize the work they do. Most conflicted is Brandy, who loves driving an amazing three-storey haul truck straight out of Pacific Rim, but who offers the uncertain reassurance: “They’re trying their hardest to do this as clean as possible.” Beefy Dan, licking his wounds after a failed shot at singing in Nashville, is a picture of confused denial. “I tell environmentalists: ‘There was a huge oil spill here millions and millions of years ago, and we’re just getting around to cleaning it up now,’ ” he says, the words “Oil Patch Tough” stretched across the chest of his T-shirt.
All of Wilkinson’s subjects are running from something, it seems—most poignantly Massey, a gay, Debbie Gibson–loving aboriginal man with a nightmarish backstory, who reinvents himself as both a Youth Entrepreneur Award winner and the karaoke drag diva Iceis Rain. In the end, we realize they’re as trapped as any of us, just at the extreme end of a universally dirty economy. The nostalgic escape into classic rock, shitty draft beer, and a single night of celebrity is understandable. More depressing is the truth uttered almost casually by that barmaid. “So many people, they just get eaten alive,” she says of the town’s transient population, which the industry treats as disposable, like anything else it can extract from nature. It’ll achy-break your heart.