Film review: Oil Sands Karaoke

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Sean Brady, Copy/Web Editor Ω

Oil Sands Karaoke opened the 2014 Kamloops Film Festival on March 7. Image courtesy Shore Films

Oil Sands Karaoke opened the 2014 Kamloops Film Festival on March 7. Image courtesy Shore Films

The contention over the Athabasca oilsands is not the focus of Oil Sands Karaoke. Karaoke is also not the focus of Oil Sands Karaoke. Instead, Charles Wilkinson’s documentary looks at the histories and personalities of a group of people who happen to be involved with both of the documentary’s namesakes.

The film follows five people who live and work in Fort McMurray – all, in some capacity, for the oilsands. The characters range from Dan, a country music-loving heavy truck driver, to Iceis, a cross-dressing safety consultant making an entrepreneurial name for himself after a tragic upbringing. All of the stories are interesting, but not many of them have much to do with the oilsands. These people, like most people in Fort McMurray, are there to work.

The karaoke competition featured in the film, alongside the backstories of all of these people, makes enough substance for the film to succeed with these elements alone. And with a little bit of tweaking, the other major elements of the film, the oilsands themselves and life in Fort McMurray, could also carry the film.

But when all of these elements are pushed together, it can be a bit too much work for the audience to make the connections. Does Dan’s dream a country music career in Nashville have anything to do with his life in Fort McMurray? Perhaps, but that connection is never made, and instead we get to hear what Dan thinks of the oilsands – some quip about how there was an oil spill in the area a long time ago, and we’re just now getting around to cleaning it up.

However, not all of the film’s explanations of the oilsands are so shallow.

The only honest character appearing in the documentary seems to be Brandy, a young woman who recognizes her Aboriginal roots and her duty for environmental responsibility, but nonetheless feels powerless to act upon that duty, saying that the oilsands operation is going to happen whether she’s a part of it or not. Still, she can’t justify her job as a heavy truck driver for Suncor, but her honesty with herself makes it seem like she doesn’t need to.

There are a number of very interesting ideas in the film that are never really explored. The idea that those who arrive in the city with debt, bills and financial obligations and dreams of paying it all off, simply continue pushing their debts aside to keep up with the high cost of living and urge to make the best of the weekend, for example. That’s a compelling idea worth exploring all on its own.

The idea that relationships don’t last in Fort McMurray because anyone who goes there puts a time limit on their stay? Another compelling idea I would have loved to hear more about.

The idea that a lot of the perceptions of Fort Mac are untrue and “bullshit”? Tell me more!

It’s obvious that Wilkinson and co-producer Tina Schliessler share a passion for photography. The film’s images of the oilsands, Fort McMurray and the surprisingly beautiful area that surrounds them, are spectacular. The interior shots are less interesting and a bit peculiar in terms of framing, but the production certainly carries its own style throughout.

Overall, the connection made between karaoke and the oilsands isn’t strong enough, and the film finds itself trying to jump between too many things at the same time. Nonetheless, the stories of the karaoke singers make the film worth watching – Iceis’ story alone is worth the cost of admission. With Oil Sands Karaoke, Wilkinson has shown that he’s a Canadian filmmaker worth watching.