In the Canadian documentary Oil Sands Karaoke, which focuses its lens on oil sands workers in Alberta, there are the stories that one might expect: truck drivers struggling to get ahead in life, a scaffolder trying to get out of debt.
Then there's one story so unexpected and so powerful, a whole feature could have been devoted to it all by itself.
Massey Whiteknife is an aboriginal entrepreneur with three businesses. He's also the first out gay male in the industrial town of Fort McMurray, which sits at the centre of the environmental controversy swirling around the oil sands. As if that's not enough, Whiteknife also stars as karaoke drag queen Iceis Rain.
But his backstory is devastating.
His is a tale of unimaginable physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at school, at home, and even into early adulthood. But the story doesn't end there because he didn't let it end there.
Vancouver-based Oil Sands Karaoke director Charles Wilkinson told the Georgia Straight by phone that he and editor Tina Schliessler cried "buckets of tears" while they were editing Whiteknife's story of perseverance and survival. Wilkinson, who says he has had a lot of experience working with First Nations cultures from his previous projects, sung praises of Whiteknife.
"I found that Massey's story was in many ways kind of a microcosm for much of First Nations experienced in Canada. And in a way Massey's story to me was a story of hope…because here's somebody who's experienced horrendous abuse, as have so many of our First Nations people, and he fought back so hard to try and recover and move on, and it's hard not to admire that in Massey…. He's lived through a shitstorm that most of us have no experience of but he fights back in a really classy and often really friendly way."
Wilkinson also admires Whiteknife's no-nonsense, utterly fearless approach to identity that miraculously transcends social divides.
"He doesn't overthink it. He just goes, 'This is what I'm like. This is who I am and I'm just going to be myself, and I'll take the consequences.' And I've seen him walk into…places where I just wouldn't be caught dead in that get-up. I'm just thinking, 'Dude, they're going to kill you!' And yet he manages to make friends with people, he slaps them on the back. He's capable of communicating something about his humanity to most people that kind of defuses the situation. Sometimes not. He's paid an awful price for who he is and what he is at times, as he says in the film, but it hasn't stopped him. He takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin' and…I think that that's particularly inspiring story for people in the LGBT movement as well and for First Nations people—just not give up, you know?"
When Whiteknife as Iceis Rain belts out the power ballad "All By Myself" in a karaoke contest, the song encapsulates the underlying existential thrust of the film: almost all the interviewees talk about their terrible loneliness and sacrificed dreams. Whiteknife's history of abuse and his isolation as the sole out gay male in a hypermasculine setting heightens the poignancy of the lyrics.
"It's just a plain story told by somebody who's got the courage to tell their story," Wilkinson says. "I know Massey is proud of what he's done in the film and we're certainly proud of him."