Oil Sands Karaoke

Reviewed by: Ben Williamson
Categories: Careers

Oil Sands Karaoke \ directed by Charles Wilkinson
Theatrical trailer

We’re so used to the arguments between those who say tar sands and those who say oil sands that we might forget it’s just called paying the bills for many Northern Albertans. Oil Sands Karaoke looks at the mining operations around the booming city of Fort McMurray, using long landscape shots and aerial footage of enormous trucks traversing the raw, bare earth carrying bitumen from shovels to crushers. But Charles Wilkinson’s second film about Canada’s controversial oil reserves (following 2011’s acclaimed Peace Out) mostly focuses on the little humans that operate the machines and their lives off the clock. 

The documentary follows a singing contest at Bailey’s Pub, a lively bar in Fort Mac. Between shifts, identities that had been set aside walk back on stage and sing covers of pop songs. Five of the finalists are profiled, and between rounds of karaoke, they tell us why they’ve come here. 

It’s a diverse group. Massey Whiteknife works 18-hour days but his real passions are music, dance and design. The highly successful entrepreneur transforms into Iceis Rain – his drag-queen alter ego – to take the stage and, for a moment, live out his childhood dream.

Dan Debrabandere tried for years to make it as a country singer. Now he’s driving a haul truck to pay back people who helped him while he was making music. 

Brandy Willier also says that she’s being pragmatic, but does it with a sigh. She talks of fishing on a reserve with her father, who died when she was seven, and of going from one foster home to another until she eventually found stability as a heavy equipment operator. She enjoys her job and argues that it’s necessary, but her argument seems to be mostly with her own conscience. “Trying to reconcile my job in the oil sands with my love for the wilderness… They’re trying their hardest, I think, to do this as clean as they possibly can. But I, amongst a lot of people, have misgivings.”

The interviews in Oil Sands Karaoke are full of this tension, and show that the workers feel the world’s scrutiny. These characters know what they do isn’t pretty, but they also resent the criticisms of a society that relies so heavily on oil. Consequently, the film is not specifically about government policy, the economy or even the environment, and it doesn’t preach or prescribe. It simply offers the sincere perspectives of the people working in Fort Mac. So much of the conversation about the industry ignores these voices, with their mix of quiet doubts and resignation.

These characters are not idealistic, but they’ve all kept at least one dream alive. This isn’t the song they wrote for their lives. For now, they’re just singing along to someone else’s tunes. 

Oil Sands Karaoke, directed by Charles Wilkinson, Canada: Indiecan Entertainment, 2013, 83 minutes

This review originally appeared in Night, Issue 39.5Subscribe now to get more reviews in your mailbox! Tickets for A\J's screening of the film are on sale now.

Reviewer Information

Ben is a former A\J editorial intern. He's currently a freelance writer based in Ottawa. He tells stories about nature, science and policy. 

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