We’ve all heard about the environmental toll that the oil sands are taking on Canada. But no attention has been given to the impact they’re having on the mental landscapes of their workers.
Vancouver director Charles Wilkinson did just that with Oil Sands Karaoke (which opens Friday [January 17] at Vancity Theatre). The documentary provides a rare view from inside the most hotly contested site in our nation.
In a phone interview, Wilkinson explained that the film is the second feature in an environmental trilogy. The first, 2011’s Peace Out, explored the true cost of energy projects, such as the Site C Dam in B.C. and a nuclear-power plant proposal in Alberta, along the Peace River.
“That movie asked the question ‘Are we ripping apart the wilderness for energy? Are we in trouble?’ ” Wilkinson said. “And the answer was, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ ”
That film ended in Fort McMurray, Alberta, which is where Oil Sands Karaoke starts. On a Peace Out screening tour, Wilkinson stumbled upon a karaoke bar in Fort McMurray and was struck by how it united people from all walks of life.
“We certainly could feel how much people valued that—that there’s almost a quality of franticness to really, truly enjoying those few hours you have off because you’re back at work in the blink of an eye.”
Wilkinson was inspired to explore what he saw more in depth. Although he said everything quickly fell into place, mounting a documentary shoot about a karaoke contest in the eye of an environmental storm was far from an easy task. He pointed out that the residents are so used to being heavily criticized that they've become highly defensive.
“When they see somebody show up with a camera, they know that 10 times out of 10, what the person is doing there is saying bad things about their project. And so they’re very suspicious.”
Yet after winning them over, he faced another hurdle.
“When we were interviewing them, it was a very unusual circumstance for these guys. They don’t engage in a great deal of abstract thought, and yet that’s what I was asking them to do at all times.…‘What do these things really, truly mean to you deep down?’ ”
As he shifted into psychologist mode, the revelations from the interviewees, ranging from conflicted truck driver Brandy Willier to entrepreneur Massey Whiteknife (who moonlights as the fearless drag queen Iceis Rain), resonated with him.
“Almost everyone expressed doubts about what they’re doing. And I thought that was super-poignant to be willing to reveal that about what they do to make a living, that they have misgivings about it.”
Wilkinson also exposes another invisible consequence they must suffer: social deprivation.
“It’s just such a lonely place to be,” he says. “The shift work is crushing. People spend 12 hours at work, usually an hour or possibly more commuting, depending on where they’re staying.…So piece together how difficult it would be to form a relationship, even just a friend, a buddy.…His shift starts at a different time than yours—when are you going to see him?”
It’s no wonder, then, that competing in a karaoke contest provides a brief moment of escape, where the workers can transcend the gruelling conditions of their daily lives and rekindle lost dreams.
“What really struck me was sort of a deeply human thing of how hard it is for us to focus on abstract ideas when we’re so concerned with the stuff right in front of us: I’ve got payments to make, I’ve got divorce payments, I’ve got child support, I’ve got student loans to pay off.…The question that the film is fundamentally asking is ‘If we are in so much trouble, how come we aren’t able to do anything about it?’ ” Wilkinson says. “And of course the answer is we’re all busy competing in a karaoke contest.”
Although he says that last comment tongue-in-cheek, his next film, which will focus on Haida Gwaii, will in fact explore what can be done about the environment—before the last song is sung.