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  • 12A
  • Documentary
  • 2009

H2Oil

H2Oil

Synopsis

Shannon Walsh's feature debut documents how the industrial extraction of oil from Alberta's tar sands impacts the local environment and community

About

Think America gets most of its oil from Saudi Arabia? Think again. Since the Second Gulf War, the US has turned to its northern neighbour Canada as principal supplier. The oil comes from Alberta's vast tar sands, extracted on an unprecedented scale  in fact the largest industrial project in human history - that is strip-mining areas of ancient boreal forest the size of Florida, and leaving behind highly toxic (and leaky) tailings ponds the size of Lake Ontario. The process requires four barrels of (locally sourced) fresh water to produce one barrel of crude oil  and the impact of this massive operation on the local environment and community is, to put it mildly, controversial.

These are the issues addressed by Shannon Walsh's directorial debut H2Oil. It focuses on Fort Chipeywan, a hamlet some 250 km downstream of the oil sands, whose residents are becoming increasingly politicised in the face of rising cancer rates and a conspiracy of silence from government and industry alike. We also follow the filmmaker's friends Aaron Mathers and Cathy Gratz as they bear alarmed witness to the dramatic reduction of fresh water levels in their family spring after a new oil rig is built nearby.

The marketing and distribution costs of H2Oil were financed by The Co-operative and Dogwoof as part of a major campaign to get onto the big screen and into the public eye films on 'toxic fuels' extracted from unconventional sources. As Peter Mettler's similarly themed Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands (2009) was released earlier this year under the same scheme, a comparison of the two films is instructive.

Although Petropolis clocked in at a mere 43 minutes, the helicopter aerials which wholly constituted it were shot in 16:9 widescreen, and had a unity and majesty to them that seemed genuinely cinematic. H2Oil has far fewer aerials (mostly seen at the film's beginning), but these, shot in 4:3 (the aspect ratio of standard TVs), betray a decidedly grainy texture that seems out of place on a big screen, while the 75-minute duration feels half an hour or so too long. This campaign piece's proper home is the television set, in a much shorter format.

The most economic aspects of Walsh's film are the occasional animated sequences of exposition, similar to those found in the documentaries of Michael Moore, exploding with compactly presented information - but the other parts of H2Oil, the talking heads and fly-on-the-wall profiles wind and meander like Alberta's Athabasca River.

Much of the anecdotal material here does not so much hammer the point home as repeat it ad nauseam, and in a manner that is not always as compelling or convincing as this subject demands. There is no denying the importance of Walsh's message - but here the message and the medium go together like oil and water.

Cast & Connections

  • Director: Shannon Walsh

In a nutshell

While H2Oil undeniably addresses important environmental and economic issues, it might, in keeping with its subject, have been more, well, slick.

by Anton Bitel

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