Focus on Festivals

Hot Docs 2013: Oil Sands Karaoke

Courtesy Charles Wilkinson and Tina Schliessler

Focusing our attention on the often-neglected pop cultural life of Fort McMurray, Oil Sands Karaoke offers a humanizing look at a town that has experienced unprecedented growth due to the environmentally dangerous oil industry. The operations of companies like Suncor are topical and ripe for discussion but as with many efforts that affect the environment and contribute to local and global economies, pointing fingers or illustrating bias inhibits debate. It is in this conversational vein that Karaoke filmmakers Charles Wilkinson and Tina Schliessler generate a meaningful and multifaceted discussion about the environment, the economy and the often-ignored human element in a destructive industry.

Oil Sands Karaoke addresses the tension between work and worldliness in fluid interviews with a handful of workers who are also preparing for a karaoke contest. Their discussions with an off-screen interviewer offer viewers a fresh, nuanced understanding of Fort McMurray and its inhabitants not as cogs in a corporatized and faceless machine, but as identifiable and intelligent individuals torn between a sense of purpose and a sense of duty. Aerial shots of heavy machinery ploughing mountains of soil contrast with close-up interviews and creatively framed footage of workers singing, allowing the viewer to zone in on the division between “work” and “fun.”

There is a sense that, for these characters, a seemingly meagre recreational pastime actually demarcates a difference between life and death. Early in the film, Suncor operator and karaoke enthusiast Brandy Willier tells the filmmakers that even though she knows that the oil sands are destroying habitats and polluting the environment, without these employers she would be destitute. Singing offers a kind of escape and redemption for her, a moment in which all worry and anxiety disappears. “You need to put a face to [the issue],” director Charles Wilkinson explains. “It’s one thing to say, ‘Let’s shut down the tar sands,’ but it’s quite another to examine in detail what the human consequences of this would be. Until you [look at the human side] you cannot move forward.”

While many in the Hot Docs crowd will show interest in a discussion about the oil sands, a glaring question begs an answer: why karaoke? Framing the crux of the issue around a singing competition at first resembles Hot Docs 2012 winner The World Before Her (dir. Nisha Pahuja), which tracks an Indian beauty contest to expose political tensions, but it is quickly noticeable that these films operate with different goals in mind. Karaoke does not expose as much as it reveals, surpassing the novelty of its central premise by living with its characters. Wilkinson says, “There is a power of art, of something like karaoke in these places that inspires camaraderie and gets people to act decently to one another.” It is through the focus on culture and humanity in the oil sands that Karaoke inspires discussion.

Click here for POV’s full list of Hot Docs previews.

Screenings:
Fri, Apr 26 8:30 PM
Isabel Bader Theatre

Sat, Apr 27 2:00 PM
The ROM Theatre

Sat, May 4 6:30 PM
Scotiabank 4

Nicholas Gergesha is a graduate of the University of Toronto’s Cinema Studies Institute. In addition to writing for magazines like POV, he also performs visual research and works with the City of Toronto.

View all articles by Nicholas Gergesha »