H2Oil: Dirty oil, sold dirt cheap

Dirty oil, sold dirt cheap

One of many 50 km2 tailings ponds near Alberta's Peace-Athabasca Delta
Photo: Cover photo by Jocelyn Michel

Montreal filmmaker Shannon Walsh's H2Oil digs deep into Alberta's multi-billion-dollar oil industry

As Canadians, we are the proud owners of what may be the most environmentally destructive undertaking of our or any other era. The multi-billion-dollar industry that extracts oil from the Athabasca oil sands is internationally controversial and environmentally omni-destructive – it has also made Canada the largest supplier of oil to the U.S. and created an economic boom in Alberta’s North that, despite claims of being only short term, is impossible to deny.

In recent years, the oil sands have become the progenitor of numerous grandiose claims: Proud proponents of the industry like to say that it’s an endeavour on a scale as massive as the pyramids in Egypt or the Great Wall of China. And indeed, the oil sands’ byproducts can be seen from space in the form of giant, leaking tailings ponds. The so-called ponds are actually man-made dammed lakes filled with billions of litres of carcinogen-laced, formerly fresh glacier water that has been used to clean some of the dirtiest oil on the planet.

Shannon Walsh’s H2Oil, the first feature-length documentary made about the Alberta oil sands, focuses on the oil sands’ effects on the province’s water, and the people who drink it, study it, sell it and fish in it – those who were the first to notice that something was very wrong in the water table.

Walsh, a Montreal-based PhD candidate in anthropology and education at McGill (in fact, she defended her dissertation last Wednesday, while doing press for the Montreal release of H2Oil), became personally invested in the oil sands when two friends, Aaron Mathers and Cathy Gratz, who own a mineral spring near Hinton, Alberta, came to her with their personal experiences. Through them, Walsh first learned about various changes in water quality, the lowering of the water table and her friends’ unsuccessful efforts to find out how a refinery up stream from their spring might be affecting their water supply.

On a trip to Northern Alberta and through subsequent research, Walsh documented others affected by the oil sands, such as the Mikisew Cree of Fort Chipewyan, who believe that their traditional food sources, along with their cancer rates, are affected by the changes in their water supply.

Moving targets

In tackling the urgent and enormous environmental and human impact of the Alberta oil industry, H2Oil also undertook the daunting task of being the first film of its kind to do so. When I met Walsh at a café near her house in Little Italy a few weeks before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen and her film’s official Montreal release, my first question had to be: How strange is it to take on these issues from a Montreal-based perspective?

"It’s funny, I get asked that question a lot," says Walsh, fresh from H2Oil‘s packed screenings at the Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal (H2Oil has also played at film festivals in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Rome and South Africa). "I think it’s emblematic of Canadians’ lack of desire to question the place where they live. Somehow it seems more curious for me to make this film than to go make a film in India about human trafficking. In Canada, interrogating our own practices is so not done."

Still, Walsh tells me of an "action event" during RIDM inspired by issues raised by her film, wherein groups of activists performed street-level actions related to the oil sands’ reach here at home. "People seem to either want to go on a field trip to the Shell refinery or do targeted stuff with the banks," she says, pointing out that all of the major banks in Canada are invested in developing Alberta’s oil sands.

Walsh’s PhD studies are concerned with neo-liberal policies after Apartheid in South Africa, but in her thinking, just as all water in the world is linked, so too are global water politics. Especially challenging was working on a documentary about an issue that changes very fast, every day.

"The story was literally a moving target that changed while we were editing. I added material a couple of weeks before we showed the film at Hot Docs in Toronto to update things, because, for example, Obama was not yet President when we were shooting the film," she says, making the point that though most Canadians may assume Obama has a more environmentally conservative agenda, his policies are "not only exactly in line with the previous administration, but pretty much word for word what Harper says," according to Walsh’s research.

Resourceful Canadians

While H2Oil makes pretty explicit claims about Canada’s status as, in many ways, a "resource colony to the United States," Walsh’s documentary has a fairly open-ended style that can be read as very Canadian, or just very smart. She presents many of her arguments and counterarguments through a character-driven approach that includes interviews with stakeholders in various communities involved in the oil sands, including Fort Chipewyan community leaders, a doctor in that Northern community, government officials, scientists and industry consultants, as well as her friends Mathers and Gratz and their spring.

Interspersed through these first-person accounts are animated sequences by Oscar-nominated animator James Braithwaite (I Met the Walrus), with Sylvie Trouvé and Dale Hayward of La Moustache Productions, that visually illustrate the science, geography and economics at issue in the oil sands industry.

The facts and arguments in H2Oil are augmented and punctuated by sequences of aerial photography of the oil sands, and slow, wide-angle flyover shots of several tailings ponds and mining sites in Alberta’s North. Daniel Legacé’s haunting sound design adds even more depth to these eerily beautiful, contemplative and disquieting images.

It is this insight and thoughtfulness that differentiates Walsh’s film from so many other docs bent on explaining a given environmental or political issue. Unlike several prominent American doc makers, Walsh avoids the temptation to put her film together from snippets that simplify and manipulate the facts to win over the greatest common denominator. In that sense, H2Oil is as much a work of art as a political statement or an educational tool.

"I come from a background in popular education, and I really wanted to make something that people could feel as well as think about," says Walsh. "I don’t think there’s any need to be heavy-handed – I think the images in my film can draw people into deeper analysis, and they can make up their own minds."

H2Oil opens at Cinéma Parallèle Dec. 4
For more information on the film and links to further resources on the Alberta oil sands, see www.h2oildoc.com

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