A unique opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of the oil sands is currently being featured in, of all things, a documentary about the karaoke subculture of Fort McMurray. The film, set in what has been called “the controversial northern Alberta oil-patch town”, is turning a spotlight on not just the town, but the product and the ongoing arguments on both sides of the 49th parallel about the pipeline that would bring its product to the United States.
According to the promotional material on the producer’s website, the film crew “initially met with a wee bit of mistrust up in Ft. Mac.” That comes as no surprise since often film crews to the area are funded by environmentalist groups from down south who are doing their level best to show how terrible extracting and shipping oil sands bitumen is for the environment.
But the take on this film is different. Despite the fact that Charles Wilkinson’s previous film was called “Peace Out”, definitely an anti-war film, his take on Fort McMurray is refreshing because it works on the premise that the people who do the work in the oil sands are just like all the rest of us. They want to work, they want a better life, and of course, like so many of us, they want to sing.
At a karaoke bar called “Bailey’s Pub”, Wilkinson met the workers who by day are valve engineers or rig operators and by night dream of professional singing careers. They are as diverse as the country from which they come. Many are from the eastern Canadian provinces which have been hit by the global recession. Others hail from the wilds of Alberta or Saskatchewan. Others come from abroad including the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. While it is still a small town, Fort McMurray has the cultural mix of a cosmopolitan city.
The documentary reflects that mix. It features a gay man who dresses flamboyantly, as his alter ego Iceis Rain, when he performs. Another performer is a petite young woman who drives an enormous rig during the day and belts out songs like a diva at night. In an interview during the film, she says, “It would be awesome if everyone would unite on the planet could work together and really make this place a better place. But a lot of what they do say about Fort McMurray is bull****.”
While the recent pipeline spill in Arkansas has ignited another round of protests, including one in which an Oklahoma grandmother chained herself to a piece of heavy equipment to stop construction of Keystone XL, the timing of “Oil Sands Karaoke” couldn’t be better. Perhaps it can inspire a way of opening a line of dialogue that so far has been “you’re wrong, I’m right”.
As Wilkinson says, “It’s clear that we seem to have reached an impasse where the 2 opposing camps just don’t communicate. So in watching the ‘hard hats & hippies’ getting along on the karaoke stage, sharing what seemed a genuine closeness we thought maybe there was a window here. We can’t talk to each other, but it might be a start if we try & sing together.”