Julia Ivanova was home alone in downtown Vancouver when she found out that Fort McMurray was burning. Only a month ago, she had finally completed her feature-length documentary, Limit is the Sky, about the city and some of the young people who lived there. Over the past four years, she’d forged a deep connection with the crazy boom-and-bust town, which had become completely associated with oil-based anti-environmental economics.
Hour after hour Ivanova watched Global TV’s live feed of the raging blaze—called The Beast for its enormity and ferocity—which would devour an area the size of Prince Edward Island and burn down about a tenth of the city.
“It’s something I will never forget, watching this thing unravel,” says Ivanova, a few months later. We speak on the phone the day after she finished editing a new ending for her film, incorporating the disaster, the costliest in Canada’s history. It’s a very brief, yet extremely powerful coda, but for the filmmaker, it’s too soon to comment on whether it does justice to her overwhelming feelings of the devastating event. “I have a lot of emotional connection to that place. As a human being, I’m more loving than as a documentary filmmaker,” she says. “As a filmmaker, you explore, you question things. You are less forgiving. On a human level, I really loved Fort McMurray and the community. And I know many people who suffered substantial loss.”
Watching Limit is the Sky, you feel the connection Ivanova makes with the city and some of its characters. The people she focuses on confide in her their dreams and struggles, bring her into their homes, hang out, have dinner parties. She’d arrived in Fort McMurray in 2012, when oil prices were high enough to make anyone working in the industry rich. Drawn to people in their twenties, Ivanova finds a world that’s as insane as it is soulful. Through them, we see that Fort McMurray, hastily developed on the back of an energy resource so wrong in so many ways, happens to be inhabited by people who are a lot like everyone, everywhere. Granted, these kids work closer to the source of environmental destruction, but aren’t all of us who live on the grid part of the same mess? We just earn less.
As they go about their lives, they don’t think about the fact that Canada’s oil sands are one of the world’s filthiest energy projects all the time, either. They want their lives to have integrity, but first they need to make some money for two years, five years—almost all of them come with a plan to leave. The film’s two female stars, one a driver of the iconic giant dump trucks, the other a hydrovac swamper, both disarmingly pretty, talk about love and getting manicures. The male leads include two refugees: a talented rapper from Sudan who wants to make it as a musician and if not, a social worker, and an artist from Lebanon. The latter’s day job as a hair stylist is the source of the film’s many great barbershop talks, not to mention unusual buzzcuts. He constantly tries, but can’t get hired at the oil sands. He came to make a quick buck but got stuck.
Like Ivanova’s last film, the acclaimed Family Portrait in Black and White (2011), her camera seems invisible here. In that film, she becomes part of a large, mixed-race foster family in the Ukraine to tell a deeply affecting tale about the meaning of motherhood, family and nation. After its 2011 premiere at the Sundance Festival, it won best Canadian feature at Hot Docs. By embedding herself in a community of millennials in controversial Fort McMurray, Limit is the Sky addresses even more complicated and resonant themes.
Sometimes grim, but always lyrical—the music and visual metaphors are great — Limit isn’t about the environment, capitalism and the economy, politics, first nations rights, feminism, immigration or moral fortitude, but by letting her characters feel free to be themselves, these subjects inevitably prevail.
A knock-out early scene shows just how comfortable these kids made themselves in front of Ivanova, a solo-act filmmaker who directs, shoots and edits her work. She’s joined a group of partiers, who’ve spilled from a club onto the street. Suddenly, one of the rowdier guys begins to exhort like a mad preacher. “Don’t move to Fort McMurray if you don’t want to make a shiz-dizzle-madizzle load of money! If you’re in Canada and you don’t come to Fort McMurray and get a piece of the fucking pie, well, you’re basically an idiot.” He taps a beat the others follow and starts to sing-chant. “We’re bleeding the goddam earth! And I’m afraid I don’t want to stop. I’m a human being, and I just want to keep going, keep fucking owning! I’m going to own a house, a boat, and an ATV and a dirt bike! Come with me, come with me!”
The raucous scene flows marvellously on screen. Ivanova, self-taught on the camera, explains that her cinematography is best when she is emotionally engaged in the moment. It’s like playing a musical instrument: “when you’re fully feeling what’s happening, it becomes very instinctive how you film,” she says.
Limit is the Sky’s imagery and editing are musical as well. Numerous shots of traffic, heavy with transport trucks and buses from the camps, and repeated footage of ravens loitering, picking at garbage, in flight, play like jazz interludes.
Ivanova’s first language is Russian. “It’s slower than English and has a different rhythm,” she explains. She takes her time with the main characters, indulging in their silences, as though sharing their thoughts. “Film is a visual art,” she stresses. “When I watch something, I get pleasure when I’m invited to participate, and not to consume. When I hear words, then I consume. If I see imagery I can interpret, it allows me to create something in my head.”
One of her favourite characters, who appreciates her musical intuition and grows to trust her deeply, is the Sudanese rapper KingDeng. He shares his clever rhymes as he jaunts from his fast food gig to the college where he takes psychology and to places where he tries to land better-paying work. His wife has left him with the two kids and he needs to provide for them. But by this point in the film, the price of oil has tanked and he’s lost hope. And to be sure, “Fort McMoney” is not a place you want to scrape by on minimum wage.
He sits at a picnic table outside a Tim Horton’s. “When I was in Africa, a kid in the war, I was only worried about death. I didn’t have that emotional problem that makes me look at myself as a failure. Before, I’d get chased. But I’d look at myself and I say, ‘I’m going to succeed today.’ But from the time I’ve come to Canada, I have this stress I didn’t know in Africa.”
And then there’s Sable, who’s fun and gregarious. She’s proud of her $33-an-hour job as a swamper, that she can haul a hefty load and handle minus-45° cold snaps. Her cardinal-red hair, streaked with a thick band of gold, frames large blue eyes and lush lips. “It’s neat telling people what I do, when I look this way. They don’t expect it.” But Ivanova finds her in a pensive mood one afternoon. As Sable strokes her pet lizard, she reveals how we all can usually justify the choices we make, even when they don’t fit quite right, or as Ivanova puts it, “Not everyone questions; not everyone is living according to the deeper interest of rebirth. And it’s not because they’re bad people, it’s just reality.”
Without looking up, Sable says, “no one really says anything about the pollution here. But you see the smoke that comes out of the plants. It’s a lot. And you think, I’m breathing that in. That is going into my body right now. You can smell it, and it does not smell nice, for sure.” She lightly kisses her pet. “But somebody’s got to make the oil.” Then she says to Ivanova, “I don’t think I’d raise a family here, though. But I don’t even know if I want kids, so, that doesn’t really matter.”
Ivanova, who is 51 and married, has a 23-year-old daughter. So, she says, the young adults she focuses on in Limit “were not strangers” to her. They became friends and viewers can sense the relationship. As soon as she met KingDeng, Sable and the others, she turned on her camera. “Some directors think you need to get to know the subjects, hang out with them for a week before you start shooting. But I feel, if they see you from day one with the camera always filming, they accept it as no different than you, as a part who you are. At the start of the film, don’t ask people questions, just film them living. And they will get used to the camera within either minutes or hours.”
Ivanova was born in Moscow, Russia, where her family was very connected to the art of cinema. Her father was a programming director for the Moscow International Film Festival. Julia studied film herself, but after graduating left it behind to work at the Canadian embassy in Moscow. In 1995, she immigrated to Canada, and it was while working as an adoption coordinator and meeting the “amazing parents,” that she became inspired to make her first of her seven films. From Russia, for Love (2000) was televised in 26 countries. In 2003, she made I Want a Woman, which followed immigrant men looking for love in Vancouver. Four years later, Fatherhood Dreams explored the travails of gay men raising kids. Continuing to make films that dismantle individual and societal preconceptions, 2010’s Love Translated followed western men travelling to the Ukraine to meet women.
“Mostly I am interested in stories about kids and about romantic relationships,” Ivanova told Indiewire in 2011. “Another topic that makes my heart beat is migration, leaving the past behind and starting anew. I know what I don’t want to touch—the stories about crime and human cruelty.”
While filming the entertaining Love Translated, Ivanova learned about Olga, the Ukranian foster mother of 16 black kids in Family Portrait in Black and White. Crafted with a deep curiosity, that film has been her most popular and critically acclaimed. The New York Times praised its honesty and noted the way the family could stand for the entire Soviet regime.
Like the majority of her films, Family Portrait was co-produced by her brother Boris Ivanov, through his Interfilm Productions. Limit Is the Sky, however, was fully funded (about $320,000) by the National Film Board. NFB producer Bonnie Thompson loved the way Julia engaged with her characters in Family Portrait, and hired her to create her idea for a film about life in Fort McMurray.
“In some ways, this film is even more auteur than Family Portrait,” Thompson says. “Julia has really pushed her craft,” and the result is a “real slick look with more experimentation” in terms of visual collages and layered sound.
The producer had already extended the film’s production schedule once before, when the oil crash hit just as the film was about to wrap. “We couldn’t end it. We needed to document the downturn,” says Thompson, “because the character of Fort McMurray is such a big part of the film.” Ivanova was sent back to capture the city’s plight and the ways her characters were coping. Last March, Thompson received the finished film.
One month later: The wildfire.
Incredibly, the film originally ended with an explosion, created with special effects—Ivanova’s way of showing that the pace of expansion of the oil sands industry couldn’t be sustainable. The revised ending ditches the CGI.
Similar to the original finale, we see rapper KingDeng has made it in Edmonton, where he sells cars. “A dream job,” he laughs. He starts to sing his catchy latest tune.
Then the film cuts to the raging fire. People fleeing. The staggering devastation.
Five weeks later, when evacuees were allowed to return to Fort McMurray, Ivanova flew back to accompany Mucharata, the truck driver, back home. The beautiful Filipina-Canadian is grateful her large home still stands, and, ever-pragmatic, that she will finally again make overtime, like before the crash, covering work for those who don’t have a home to return to. Then, inadvertently, she sums up life in Fort McMurray—and in any city, for that matter. “My job is waiting for me. This is my town. This is my home. You know, life must go on.”
Then we see it for the first time. The colossal expanse of black veins of the oil sands. From high in the air, we see a dump truck pull up to a crane for fill-up. Fade out.