One year after the Fort McMurray wildfires, a new film documents the young people who came and left

Film director Julia Ivanova's new film follows six millennials who travelled to Fort McMurray when oil prices were high, only to find themselves struggling after the town went bust. She says their stories resonate far beyond Fort McMurray.
(Julia Ivanova/NFB)
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Film director Julia Ivanova had just wrapped production on her NFB documentary about Fort McMurray when she heard the town was on fire.

Ivanova's film, shot between 2011 and 2015, followed six millennials who travelled to Fort McMurray when oil prices were high, only to find themselves struggling after the town went bust. Now, one year after the devastating wildfires, Ivanova's film, Limit Is the Sky, is set to premiere in Vancouver.

Ivanova began filming the documentary when Fort McMurray, the third-largest oil reserve in the world, was at the peak of its boom. Job-seekers, particularly young people, flocked to the area for work and stayed. But then came plummeting oil prices and the massive wildfires.

"I am pretty sure that there was no one in the world who could predict that just a year and a half later, it would end so sharply and fast," Ivanova says.

KingDeng, one of the subjects of the film. ( Jimmy Bustos/NFB)

Young people with big dreams

Limit Is the Sky profiles six young Canadians, including refugees from the Middle East and Africa, who came to Fort Murray looking for a better life. Ivanova wanted to explore how millennials were dealing with the economic situation in the region both before and after the boom.

She notes the common narrative that most who go to work in the oil sands are after the big money is often more complicated than that — while making her film, she met many young people with big dreams who wanted to work hard and save money to make their aspirations a reality.

        

               

One of the film's most compelling subjects is King Deng, a refugee from South Sudan. How did he end up all the way in an oil town in Alberta?

"[He's] a very talented musician [who] came to Fort McMurray actually to study," Ivanova explains. "He wanted to become a social worker. And in the film, you can see that everything pushes him towards becoming one of the labourers in the oil fields."

As with Deng, many others in Fort McMurray find themselves pushed into working in the oil sector despite going there for other reasons entirely.

"I think this film actually shows how difficult it is for refugees to leave the country they feel they belong [to] and then come to this new land and try to build something here," Ivanova says.

Max, from Lebanon, one of the protagonists in Julia Ivanova's film, 'Limit Is the Sky'. (Julia Ivanova/NFB)

'A cap on our dreams'

Ivanova had already completed her documentary when the wildfires hit Fort McMurray last spring. While she was exploring the economic forces at play in the region, she was then forced to ponder how this huge force of nature would affect the community.

"You can see in the film, this fire, it is something that I think [would] wake you up at night for years and years," she says. "I'm emotionally attached to this place, because it is a very complex place, and it's beautiful… That's why maybe Limit Is the Sky is such a strange title, because the sky puts a cap on our dreams."

                

             

Just a few years after making her film, only one of the six protagonists remains in Fort McMurray, Ivanova notes.

"I think Fort McMurray for many [young people] was a stage that helped them to understand what they want to do in life and also help them become stronger," she says. "But it was only one step, and now their life takes them elsewhere."

 

       
Limit Is the Sky screens May 5 at the Vancity Theatre as part of the DOXA documentary film festival. For details, see doxafestival.ca.

To hear Brent's full conversation with  Julia Ivanova, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.