Zack Embree sounds like a traumatized man when he talks about Fort MacKay.
“It’s very sobering,” he says softly. “First Nations are typically at the frontline of resource extraction and environmental degradation, and that long history of exploitation hit me in the face when I went to Fort MacKay.”
Some 50 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, in the middle of Alberta’s bitumen-mining operations, this tiny hamlet on the Athabasca River is one of the sacrifice zones of the tarsands.
“People there are, literally, surrounded by trillions of litres of toxic water,” Embree continues. “What they do is they transform the boreal forest, which is a massive source of freshwater and oxygenation, and literally scrape it to the side, turning it into scorched-earth sand dunes and toxic tailing ponds surrounded by cannons to scare away the birds. It’s like sci-fi up there. The air is heavy with the smell of oil and pollutants; the people up there have rare cancers and illnesses—it’s a very difficult place to be.”
Embree’s interest in the impact of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion project is what prompted the visit to Fort MacKay. The roving filmmaker (helped by Vancouver codirector Devyn Brugge) went to Alberta, New Brunswick, and even Paris during a five-year mission to produce Directly Affected, a remarkably comprehensive feature-length doc on the dire costs of Canada’s mutation into “energy superpower”.
The Vancouver-based Embree spoke to the Georgia Straight by phone just one week after Suncor Energy Inc. announced its plan to replace some 400 tarsands workers with driverless trucks—so much for the persistent myth of more jobs—and three days after Justin Trudeau hit a spectacular wall of pipeline opposition during a town-hall meeting in Nanaimo.
“It’s become clear that he’s continuing with a corporate agenda, except with hugs and teddy bears and shirtless photo ops. And B.C. sees right through it,” says Embree, whose film begins by contrasting Trudeau’s PR effort at the Paris Climate talks in 2015 with the National Energy Board’s dizzyingly antidemocratic approach to pipeline expansion. (“It’s a sham, the whole process,” Burnaby South MP Kennedy Stewart states in the film. “Rigged,” says Burnaby mayor Derek Corrigan.)
The documentary goes on to address every angle of its subject—the economic, social, and environmental catastrophes that await—while simultaneously making the case for clean-energy solutions and signalling its faith in citizen resistance.
Beautifully shot, engaging, and effective, Embree’s film receives its premiere at North Van’s Centennial Theatre on Sunday (February 11) with David Suzuki, Eoin Finn, Tracey Saxby, and the director himself in attendance as part of the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival. Embree will also be there for a second VIMFF screening at the Cinematheque next Friday (February 16).
Inside a typically spectacular program of nature and adventure features and shorts, it’s the perfect venue for Directly Affected. The film’s title refers to the newspeak employed by the NEB to bypass community concerns about a substance that could, in the probable event of a spill, make parts of Vancouver uninhabitable—as was the case with Enbridge’s Kalamazoo River spill in 2010 and ExxonMobil’s Arkansas Mayflower spill in 2013. (Embree’s film notes that we’re entrusting this responsibility to Kinder Morgan, a direct descendent of Enron.)
“We have a duty to stand up for nature, for the life force of this Earth that supports us,” Embree says. “So if the Mountain Film Festival is a celebration of all that is wild and incredible about the human spirit, if it’s about the human spirit experiencing nature, performing incredible feats, and overcoming incredible challenges, then I think that the challenge that we face in terms of climate change is our Everest right now.”
The Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival runs from February 9 to 17. More information here.