Dirty Oil

Dirty Oil


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

The images that the word ‘oil’ conjures up are very cinematic ones: Texan plains or Middle Eastern deserts dominated by huge refineries belching eternal flame and derricks plunging up and down like ‘melancholy mad elephants’.

It’s a "dirty, expensive and dwindling" resource, to use the words of President Obama in a speech quoted early on in Iwerks’ fascinating and thought-provoking documentary. Its negative impact on the environment has already been extensively documented and in many people’s opinion the desire for it has prompted the worst excesses of global realpolitik. But its volatile, elemental nature and the dangers involved in drawing it from the ground have lent the industry a certain dark glamour.

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It’s hard to imagine movies like There Will Be Blood, or even Hellfighters, being inspired by the processing of natural gas. But the focus of this film is an entirely different branch of the oil industry, and its imagery - along with the story it helps to tell - is equally compelling, if much, much bleaker.

It opens with a series of ordinary Americans being asked which country they think provides the bulk of the USA’s oil imports. Without exception they reply “the Middle East” or occasionally a more specific “Saudi Arabia”; a view shared by most of the world, including this reviewer.

In fact, almost all of America’s imported oil comes from its next door neighbour, Canada. And most of that comes from one development in the province of Alberta. Here, the oil comes from tar sands – not drilled from deep in the ground and sent up in gushers of ‘black gold’ but separated from the earth where it has actually seeped into the surface.

The development covers an area the size of Florida and works on the strip-mining principle. Over a colossal area, great chunks of earth are heaved up and taken in 30-foot high trucks to processing centres where the oil is laboriously separated and everything else is sluiced away.

The process creates far more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil production, releases a cocktail of toxic chemicals into the surrounding rivers creates a landscape reminiscent of the Mordor wastelands during a particularly nasty nuclear winter. Environmental campaigners and local residents’ groups describe it as the most polluting industrial project in the world.

It’s clear whose side the filmmakers are on, but it’s hard not to come away thinking they’ve got a point. Through talking to energy experts, investigative journalists and the local Native Canadian people, many of whom still depend on the natural world for their livelihood, a depressing and familiar picture of greed, carelessness and obfuscation emerges.

Without resorting to Michael Moore-ish grandstanding or gimmicks they simply make the case that the operation is doing untold damage to the environment; plant and animal species are dying, disappearing or turning up mutated and the oil companies’ efforts at 'land reclamation' come across as a very perfunctory PR exercise – a lifeless plantation of fir trees with a tiny, fenced-in herd of buffalo nearby is one of the film’s many striking images.

It’s no surprise when they turn the spotlight on the health of the human population and find that in one particular settlement the incidence of bile duct cancer and other diseases associated with contaminated food and water is off the register for the size of population. When the local doctor draws this to the authorities’ attention he’s charged with ‘causing undue alarm’ and his licence to practice is revoked while an investigation into his conduct takes place.

The doctor (an Irish-born Ordinary Joe who’s clearly devoted to the tiny community he serves) is one of many interviewees who give a personal dimension to what could have simply been a bit of worthy but unfocused hand-wringing. Iwerks is also scrupulously fair in giving the right of reply to representatives of the oil companies and the various state and federal bodies.

But their claims are rightly challenged in turn and found to be more than somewhat wanting. The film certainly deals a body blow to the image of Canada as the ‘green’ and liberal one among the North American behemoths. Ironically, it’s only when the oil goes across the border that the issue achieves a global profile, when the supposedly gas-guzzling, rapacious Americans see the polluting effects in their own backyard and the politicians and celebrities jump on the bandwagon.

There’s no particularly happy ending, but I suspect you knew that already. The closing footage of President Obama’s speech introducing his new clean energy initiatives, and a passionate academic urging the need to place the world on a ‘war footing’ against our over-reliance on oil sound like a triumph of hope over experience. The Alberta project continues apace, with the local and national government seemingly content to let foreign oil companies plough up and poison a huge swathe of the country and sell the yield to someone else, in return for the massive tax revenues their presence brings.

Still, if no one ever thought anything could be changed... Dirty Oil is a committed but controlled piece of documentary film-making that makes its case in a sober, factual manner. But it has a host of compelling characters and a spare, literate script. As narrator, Campbell (the Canadian-born star of the Scream trilogy amongst others and an environmental campaigner of long standing) fits in well with the mood of controlled passion, never seeming like a faux-sincere ‘good cause celebrity’ for hire.

If it had delved a little more into the relationship between America and Canada, or the geopolitical attitudes that prompted America’s move to look for its oil closer to home, this could have been one of the great documentaries. But it certainly fulfils one of the golden rules; find a story that needs to be told, and tell it well.

Reviewed on: 06 Mar 2010
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Dirty Oil packshot
A documentary investigation into a Canadian oil operation which campaigners claim is destroying the environment – and residents’ health.
Amazon link

Director: Leslie Iwerks

Writer: Leslie Iwerks

Starring: Narrated by Neve Campbell

Year: 2009

Runtime: 73 minutes

Country: US, Canada


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