Review: Oil Sands Karaoke

It is the end of a very long and epic week, a week that had me passing along tickets to Bill Cosby because it was the only thing I could give up to spend some much needed time with my sons.  Heather has been out of town at a spirituality retreat, and they've been very gracious in spending solo time at the house while I took care of my various evening responsibilities including hosting the post-screening discussion panel for Oil Sands Karaoke, the new documentary film directed by Charles Wilkinson.

Charles and his wife Tina wandered into my world last fall, sharing the vision for their film and asking for some help in getting a few doors open.  Thoughtful, articulate and passionate about the story they wanted to tell, I sent a few emails and made a couple of calls.  That was the extent of my involvement with Oil Sands Karaoke.  The end result, which was recently debuted at the Hot Docs documentary film festival in Toronto, has received very positive reviews.

There is always a smidgen of doubt and mistrust in our minds when dealing with media folk who come into our world with platitudes about telling a balanced story and giving our community a fair shake.  Our reticence has blossomed out of many promising seeds sown in blind faith that have proven to be noxious weeds.  Oil Sands Karaoke certainly had the potential to be a plant of this ilk, but instead, it turned into a beautiful flower that tells a powerful story of rebirth and redemption.

The stunning documentary film about five oil sands workers who love to sing karaoke, begins with one of the visual icons of the "largest industrial project in the history of humanity" - a heavy hauler, slowly moving across the screen, creating a low rumbling that drills its way into that soft place in your gut, preparing you for the journey ahead.  An integral component of the truck and shovel surface mining extraction method that has fueled Wood Buffalo's epic growth over the last decade, the heavy hauler represents the scope and scale of the development and the indomitable spirit of the people who live here and those who have found their way here from all over the world.

Each of the characters that we get to meet over the course of film have disparate stories that intersect in that place of second and third chances, that nexus where desperation is supplanted by hope.  Dan Debrabandere is a heavy hauler operator working for Syncrude.  Domestic turbulence, bad choices and piles of debt, derailed his dream of a singing career in Nashville.  A good steady job in the oil sands is allowing him to make reparations and take back his life.  Karaoke singing allows him to stay connected to his passion, keeping the embers warm with the possibility that one day he may re-ignite his dream of a singing career.

"I love my job!" effused Brandy Willier about her work as a haul truck operator for Suncor.  A young lady with an incredible voice and a strong environmental sensibility rooted in her Aboriginal heritage, she demonstrates wisdom beyond her years in being able to frame her work in the oil sands.  Our future is bright with young people like Brandy among us and with us.

I couldn't take my eyes off of Chad Ellis.  His face, his voice, his presence pulls you in and makes you wonder what the hell is the guy doing working at site.  But as he lumbers toward the camera decked out in his PPE and coveralls on what looks to be a bitterly cold October day, you get the sense that he's equally at home with his scaffolding brothers and sisters as he is with his karaoke peeps.  His performance in the karaoke contest is captivating and is sure to attract the attention of music industry impresarios as Oil Sands Karaoke finds markets around the globe.

When Jason Sauchuk's voice first belted its way out of the speakers at Keyano Theatre, as the film moved by on the 40-foot screen, I shook my head in confusion trying to process what I was hearing with what I was seeing.  A prodigious tenor, Jason can wrap himself around a Brittany Spears hit just as easily as a heavy metal classic.  Born with the benefit of a youthful visage, this haul truck operator for Suncor came to the region to dig himself out of what seemed a hopeless situation back home in Ontario.  He's working hard, but he's also finding time to pursue his passion, make good connections and build a life in Alberta's north.

Iceis Rain (Massey Whiteknife) sat on my right on stage during the post-screening discussion about the film.  We had met several times many years ago, back when I was the program director at the radio stations in town, I'm guessing in the days before Iceis made her appearance.  Certainly the emotional epicentre of the film, hearing Massey say "I'm so lonely" stopped my heart, as did his story of what happened on the outskirts of Edmonton as a 16-year-old desperately trying to come to terms with a history of abuse and her/his sexuality. When he sings "All By Myself" by Eric Carmen, one of the quintessential life-completely-sucks songs, I was riveted and connected to a past, present and future incredibly complex and troubled, yet brimming with courage, resolve, and ultimately, hope.

Mayor Blake, Iceis Rain and Charles Wilkinson joined me in the post-screening panel discussion
The cinematography, the structure, the devices used to frame the story of five rich and unforgettable citizens of Wood Buffalo were outstanding, a rare piece of high art that is accessible, entertaining and moving.  From the flyover shots of the massive mines to the beautiful sweeps down the Clearwater River, my heart soared with a sense of home, belonging, opportunity, and an assurance that there is no other place on earth that I'd rather be.


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