Dirty Oil (2009)

Dirty Oil

Exposing Canada’s toxic Dirty Oil industry, Leslie Iwerks’ documentary investigates the casualty list at Athabasca’s tar sands and beyond. There will be blood.

Dirty Oil

A Rush of Mud To The Head by Mark Wilshin

The first of three films in the Toxic Fuels campaign produced by online festival platform Babelgum and übergreen Co-operative Bank, Leslie Iwerks’ documentary Dirty Oil grabs the grubby Canadian oil industry by its greedy gullet. Alchemising black gold from a naturally petrol-heavy sludge by way of a carbon-gobbling refinery in the tar sands of Alberta, Canada has been supplying the US with more oil than any other country for over a decade. But with deforestation and pollution as toxic byproducts, the environmental deathtoll is rising. It’s time to cut the crude.

Dirty Oil opens with a low flight over Canada’s tar sands. It’s an ambivalent image for the uninitiated, not quite sure if this is an ecological disaster we’re serenely witnessing. It is however perfectly natural; an oily quagmire that has been used by First Nation inhabitants for generations to waterproof kayaks. Now the centre of an oil rush, the trees of the tar sands have been replaced with billowing chimneys and leaking tailing pools, disrupting the roaming habits of First Nation communities and poisoning the Athabasca Lake with heavy metals and toxic chemicals. This pollution has been killing local wildlife, 1,600 ducks died one season after landing on one of the many uncovered discharge ponds, as well as causing diseases, with particularly high rates of bile duct cancer for the aboriginal community downriver at Fort Chipewyan. And with the government and petrostate Alberta turning a blind eye, (set to make $70 billion in taxes by 2020) this self-regulating industry is muddying Canada’s waters.

With Canadian actress and environmental campaigner Neve Campbell narrating, Dirty Oil wears its pollution-busting credentials on its green sleeve, with insightful interviews with leading ecologists and government-harangued doctors. But the documentary is disappointingly off-kilter, with Government and industry officials refusing to take part. Their refusal distorts the film as much as the opening vox pops where all the US citizens happen to believe the same thing, namely that US oil comes from the Middle East. Iwerks may be simply making a point, but surely there’s room for one dissenting voice on this thin green line.

In fact, in comparison with black-eyed Canada, Dirty Oil makes the oil-guzzling US look gleamingly eco-friendly, improving their green energy resources through wind, solar and geothermal sources as well as reducing carbon emissions and even questioning the need for Canada’s dirty oil. The US is however, like most industrialised nations, still more greenback than green. The State of Indiana allowing BP to pump unsafe levels of ammonia into Lake Michigan for the sake of 80 jobs is not the only blot on an otherwise green and pleasant land. Can the US economy really go eco?

As such it’s the second half of the documentary that really stirs the green blood. As Albertan environmentalist Andrew Nikiforuk shockingly takes responsibility for all the Canadian government’s greed and the oil industry’s carelessness, the consumer’s responsibilities hit home hard. Viewing climate change as cultural genocide or environmental oppression may be a stretch, but it is hard to resist the militancy of another ecologist urging us to embrace the fight as a military campaign, with the US government harnessing the automobile industry, as Roosevelt once did, to create green cars instead of fighter jets. The thought of reducing man’s dependency on my own private automobile remains however curiously absent.

Breaking the blackblood ties between industry and government lies at the heart of Leslie Iwerk’s viscous documentary. With countries like Norway, Iceland, New Zealand and Costa Rica blazing a trail for carbon neutral economies, there is a confident optimism that mankind can overcome the greed and destructiveness of industry. Both refreshing and rose-tinted, it hinges on our capacity to resist the guilty pleasures manufactured for us by dream factories. It’s time we consumers get our hands dirty.

Dirty Oil is released in the UK on 15th March 2010.

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