Thursday 25 April 2013

OIL SANDS KARAOKE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Klymkiw HOT DOCS 2013 HOT PICKS

Oil Sands Karaoke (2013) ****
dir. Charles Wilkinson

Review By Greg Klymkiw

One of the most devastating assaults upon Canada's environment continues to take place in the Alberta Oil Sands. For the faceless corporations lining the deep pockets of the very few, one of the largest deposits of petroleum on our fair planet is in - you guessed it - the Alberta Oil Sands.

Fort McMurray, Alberta used to be a city until it was amalgamated with a good chunk of the region of the Oil Sands once referred to as (don't laugh, I'm not kidding) an Improvement District. Once the city and the nameless district became one, the city of Fort McMurray was no longer a city, but rather (again, don't laugh, I'm really not kidding) an urban service area.

It seems tax dollars were hard at work coming up with all that in order to more adequately serve the interests of oil companies that would find it more convenient to strip the land of its natural beauty if they only had to deal with one civic bureaucracy. Fort McMurray and surrounding areas are, you see, a major cash cow. This area is alone responsible for generating two million barrels of oil every single day. This sure isn't a bad haul considering that the world uses 90 million barrels of oil a day.

It is Fort McMurray where Director Charles Wilkinson and Producer Tina Schliessler, the makers of Peace Out, last year's stunning, award-winning documentary on energy consumption, have aimed their lenses upon. This time, though, the subjects are not corporate CEO's and environmental specialists, but rather, the people - the real people of Fort McMurray. Including migrant workers, the population of the amalgamated R.M. can hit heights of well over 70,000 and most of them either work in the oil business or are beholden to it with their own non-oil toils.

Corporations often think about their scads of employees as faceless hordes, but Oil Sands Karaoke seeks to give faces and names to those who break their backs out in the oil fields - haul truck drivers, small business owners and scaffolders to name but a few.

This is a movie about people - working people.

Wilkinson's film treats all of them with the respect corporations don't. Focusing on five primary individuals, Wilkinson's camera eye captures who they are, where they came from, what their work is and what they hope their futures hold. Most of all, it captures their one true passion.

Bailey's Pub is a popular magnet for oil workers. It's a Karaoke Bar where the backbone of the oil industry, the hard labourers, come to express themselves through song, through music, through fellowship and camaraderie - Karaoke!

Bailey's bartender puts it simply and best - the working people of the oil industry come there for a small section of limelight, to focus themselves on pure musical (and in a sense, spiritual) expression. "It's a big escape from reality," the bartender states succinctly.

Escaping the reality of toil in the Oil Sands might be the only thing to maintain one's sense of self-worth. Yes, the wages are great, but Wilkinson cannily displays the working conditions. On the surface, all seems fine - state of the art equipment, an accent on workplace safety and the ability to learn and work a trade to the best of one's ability.

This is all, however, skin deep.

Wilkinson uses shots of the land itself as both transition points in the narrative, but to also expose the ruination of the environment, the bleak, manmade hell that is the Oil Sands. Land scorched and scraped beyond recognition, a hazy treeless wasteland and worst of all, endless smokestacks belching clouds of filth into the air are what comprise the world these workers must live in.

It ain't pretty, but every night in the karaoke bar, all that changes. With lights in their eyes and the sounds of genuinely appreciative audiences, the workers who partake of the nightly forays into musical expression get to experience the thrill of connecting with others using their innate talents to perform.

Life transforms into a thing of genuine beauty.

We've had our share of fictional renderings of this phenomenon - whether it be John Travolta's Tony Manero tripping the light fantastic on the disco floors of Saturday Night Fever or Jennifer Beals gyrating ever-so artistically to Michael Sembello singing "Maniac" in Flashdance - but with Oil Sands Karaoke we get the real thing.

Seeing these genuinely decent working class heroes spilling out their innermost dreams through song and knowing they are the real thing - not a construct of imagination, but rather, what and who they are in life - is what provides the sort of resonance that fiction can't always deliver. Sometimes you just need to train your lens on reality.

This is what Wilkinson does so expertly and poignantly.

And yes, he tells a story. The narrative arc involves an upcoming karaoke contest at Bailey's - an event that grips Fort McMurray by the veritable short hairs - especially those who will participate in it.

One of the revelations in Oil Sands Karaoke is the alluring, passionate and genuinely talented Iceis Rain. By day, a small business owner, but by night a chanteuse of the highest order. He claims to have been the first gay person in Fort McMurray to come out and though he might, in other similar working class towns in other countries - oh, let's say, the United States - he might well be taking his life in his hands. As we come to know and love those who patronize Bailey's, he's in good hands (most of the time) - surrounded by warmth and good cheer.

All that aside, Iceis (pronounced like "Isis") Rain delivers one show-stopper after another. By the time we get to the big Karaoke contest, Iceis knocks us completely on our collective asses. The performance is infused with a strange blend of sadness and elation - a kind of melancholy that has the power to lift our spirits to the Heavens - and does so with a virtuosity that captures it so indelibly that many will be moved to tears. I know I was.

Oil Sands Karaoke is quite unlike any documentary about the environment that you'll ever see. It's about the people. And as is my wont when compelled, I'm always happy to paraphrase that great line Jimmy Stewart has in It's a Wonderful Life. With taste and genuine emotion, Wilkinson sheds light upon all those "who do most of the living and dying in this town."

It can't get more environmental than that.

"Oil Sands Karaoke" has its World Premiere at Hot Docs 2013. For tickets and showtimes, feel free to visit the Hot Docs website directly by clicking HERE.