A guy walks into a bar…
That’s pretty much how film-maker Charles Wilkinson came to make his seductive documentary, Oil Sands Karaoke, on, of all things, a karaoke contest in the heart of you-know-what country, Fort McMurray. After being distinctly underwhelmed by two earlier forays during VIFF’s final week (Gloria and When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism), it was refreshing to see a film that captured and held my attention.
The documentary focuses on five diverse individuals who work in or around the oil sands. Rather than letting their jobs define them, however, they shine in a totally different light on the nights they repair to Bailey’s Pub to indulge their love of karaoke.
There, they dare to dream as divas, dare to stand alone on stage, belting out their chosen songs with as much feeling and passion as any of the original artists – for a mostly-soused audience that varies between wild exuberance for the performers and indifference. Yet Wilkinson ensures that the film’s audience is anything but indifferent. We find ourselves caught up in what we learn of their lives and aspirations. Instead of anonymous workers toiling away among those monstrous, scarred landscapes of bitumen extraction, we get to know them as people. We root for these “Bitumen Balladeers”, as one alliterative headline writer styled them.
During a Q and A after the film, Wilkinson, a likeable guy in blue jeans and open-tailed shirt, said he and his crew had been filming around Fort McMurray for other reasons, and hit the bar to relax. To their surprise, they found karaoke going on, and in particular, a charismatic, cross-dressing, gay businessman named Iceis, with a captivating voice and powerful stage presence. (“I think I was the first person to come out in Fort McMurray,” Iceis later confides to the camera.) Well, that’s pretty interesting, thought Wilkinson, and gradually, the documentary took shape. “It was absolutely random luck we went into Bailey’s that night,” he told us.
Reviewers have justly celebrated the human face Oil Sands Karaoke puts on Fort McMurray and its workforce. At the same time, it’s a pretty unconventional approach to what is the most significant producer of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, and number one on the hit list of environmentalists across North America. Much as I enjoyed the movie, I couldn’t help wrestling with the thought: what is the point of making a documentary that paints the oil sands workers in such a rosy hue? Back in Fort McMurray, the documentary received a standing ovation. Wilkinson, clearly someone who cares about conservation, is toast of the town.
I asked the director whether that was a good thing, given the undoubted damage the oil sands do to the atmosphere and surrounding wilderness. (I didn’t mean one should demonize the workers. They are hardly villains. I meant that, if you’re making a film about the oil sands, why make this one?)
A good question, Wilkinson responded. His goal was to engage, he said. “If you’re just yelling and screaming, and saying ‘there are good guys and bad guys’, you don’t get anywhere. Personally, I am not crazy about movies that preach to the choir. Those workers up there are so used to people slamming them. This [kind of movie] makes them open to discussion. Otherwise, they’re turned off.”
According to the director, whose previous film was Peace Out, a non-polemical but heartfelt look at the impact of big energy, his oil sands workers have started to at least think about the environment. “Some are even thinking of buying a Prius,” he said, with a smile, although admitting they remain worried how that might go over in Fort McMurray.
The issue is complex, Wilkinson insisted. “How do you shut down the oil sands? Ninety thousand people and their families up there depend on it. Those people on the ground are just like you and me.” There’s also the matter of our own lifestyle. How much of it are we prepared to sacrifice to reduce the role of fossil fuels, Wilkinson wondered.
I wasn’t convinced. I remain conflicted, and by that I mean, in typical Mickle fashion, I go back and forth on the question. In the midst of something with such vast implications for the environment, does the duty of the film-maker go beyond telling a good story? Good fodder for chin-wagging around ye olde scuttle bucket, methinks.
See the movie. It’s well crafted. The characters are hard not to embrace, and they serve as a useful reminder, perhaps, that the oil sands are more than just a protest sign.
(Incidentally, making the movie did change Charles Wilkinson’s mind about one thing – karaoke. “I loathed it all my life….the idea of drunk people singing off key,” he confessed. “But now, I totally get it. It gives people a chance to stand up and do something. I love that.”)