There are a couple of ways you could make a film about the Alberta oil sands, one of the largest industrial projects in the world. You could construct a devastating indictment of the oil sands’ environmental impact, which would be worthy but probably depressing.

Or you could view the whole thing through a prism. In the case of this unexpected and engaging documentary, that prism is Thursday karaoke night at Bailey’s Pub in downtown Fort McMurray.  

If the premise of Oil Sands Karaoke sounds frivolous, it’s not. Filmmaker Charles Wilkinson quietly and gradually builds up a sense of the massive environmental effects of the oil sands. He also conveys the severe social stresses brought on by life in a boomtown. He just does it on a human scale.

In the lead-up to a big karaoke contest, we meet five men and women. While we are being introduced to their varied vocal stylings, we learn what has brought each of them to the Big Mac, what they do, and how they feel about it.  

Wilkinson, meanwhile, is subtly sketching in the background: the never-ending plumes of white smoke from the refineries, the overhead shots of gouged-out surface mining sites, the vast tailing ponds, the giant megastructures, the massive $6 million heavy-haul machines. Everything is unimaginably big, which makes Wilkinson’s concentration on individuals even more important.

Technically, Fort McMurray is not a city; it’s an “urban service area,” which sounds a little Dystopian and sinister. It used to be a small town, and it’s now pressed by housing shortages, traffic nightmares and a runaway cost-of-living, struggling to handle an influx of transient workers. There’s a lot of money—everyone seems to drive a shiny king cab truck—but there is also a surreal sense that it could all disappear.

Social isolation is a real problem. It’s no coincidence that Massey Whiteknife, a two-spirited Aboriginal man who works 18 hours a day as a consultant and performs at night in fabulous drag, enters the karaoke contest with a heart-tearing rendition of All By Myself.

Some of the film’s subjects are Fort McMurray born and bred. Others have come from far away, to dig their way out of debt, to escape the trap of low-paying service jobs. When they talk about their work, they can be conflicted or uncomfortable or defensive or proud. They’re often angry at southerners’ hypocrisy. One woman says that when people find out she works in Fort McMurray, they often treat her with a kind of veiled contempt. She always asks them, “Did you drive here? What are you wearing on your feet?”

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor, CBC Reviewer (CBC)

Examining this complex, controversial collision of economics, environmentalism and ethics, Oil Sands Karaoke is a very human look at Canada’s biggest oil patch.

Hear Alison Gillmor on Up to Speed on Thursday November 28 at 3:40. Oil Sands Karaoke screens at Cinematheque (November 28, 7:00 p.m., November 29 and 30, 9:00 p.m., and December 1, 7:00 p.m.) Following the November 30th screening, there will be (yikes!) audience karaoke.