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Three Oily Film Reviews: H2Oil, Overburden and Petropolis

December 20, 2009

If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them. Isaac Asimov (1920 - 1992)

Modern plastics are largely made from oil and byproducts from petrochemical production.  While exact statistics are difficult to come by, most of the information out there suggests that about 430,000 gallons of oil to are used to produce  100 million plastic bags, and the U.S. alone goes through 380 billion bags a year. The Food Democracy blog states that:

[…]more than 1.6 billion gallons of oil are used each year for plastic bags alone. The more we use plastic bags, the more we waste oil. Compounding the problem is the fact that, not only do we make tons of plastic bags (and use lots of oil in the process) we only recycle 1 percent.

Three timely Canadian films that approach the lengths of our addiction to oil and the lengths to which we go through the Alberta tar sands project. Each film takes a different, albeit environmentally-aware stance on the topic. They’re currently playing the festival circuit — and all are worth watching.

Director Shannon Walsh’s H2Oil probably gives one the best general overview of Canada’s very own environmental and moral black hole. The feature-length documentary looks at how the project is affecting First Nations communities in the area, as well as its impact on a young couple who operated a bottled water company near the site, and of course, an aptly horrific sideways glance at what the tar sands now look like.

For those who can’t hack the spectacle over the long haul with H2Oil, a 15-minute doc entitled Overburden is slated to play at the Powell River Film Festival in February, along with Petropolis . Overburden gives you a glimpse into the conflicting points of view coming from the local Alberta/Saskatchewan First Nations communities.

Overburden‘s official plot summary:

In Northern Alberta, two Aboriginal communities defend the environment, their health, and their traditional way of life in the face of a destructive oil recovery enterprise. A compelling and timely doc that contests the exploitation of Alberta’s oil sands.

Neil McArthur and Warren Cariou’s film Overburden reveals a microcosm of how people in small resource-based economies can entertain two apparently conflicting views at once: to embrace the tar sands’ promise of potential wealth, jobs and a materially rich future for youth, must one also accept pollution, sickness and permanent degradation of traditional hunting and fishing areas? Both H2Oil and Overburden address the growing tension and opposition to the multinational oil companies’ plans to turn huge areas of Canada into dead zones.

Of the three films, Petropolis was the most visually and emotionally affecting for me. Hardly a word is spoken during this Greenpeace-produced 50-minute lyrical documentary by Peter Mettler. The sparse, droning soundtrack helps to further intensify the apocalyptic mood set by the moonscape that is Fort McMurray. Think of it as a Cinema-Verité travelogue into a awesome/awful landscape that even Hieronymus Bosch would have had trouble conjuring up.

Petropolis is a mesmerizing, out-of-body experience of the tar sands, using slow, precise and incredibly steady (even slick, to extend the metaphor) aerial camerawork that simply shows the landscape for what it has become.  By the end of the film, the fact that what you just saw represents only 3% of the project’s full potential only adds to the necessary horror. Thankfully, none of the three films come across as preachy, and while Petropolis is slow-moving, it does something that films in this genre rarely do: it allows for an almost religious space for silent contemplation and realization that we must make the changes we want to see.

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