In review: “Oil Sands Karaoke”

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Some things are just not meant to go together. Whether it’s peanut butter and tuna or beer and tequila, there are things that no matter how great they are on their own, cannot be put together to make work. So what happens when you mix working in Canada’s oil sands and casual bar karaoke? In the case of Charles Wilkinson’s Oil Sands Karaoke, you get quite the polarizing documentary.

On Thursday Feb. 6 at the original Princess cinema, the now controversial documentary was played for an eager audience. The evening, presented by Alternatives Journal, included a showing of the documentary and a tall can of PBR from Chainsaw afterwards.  The documentary opens with a heavy excavation hauler slowly moving across the screen, creating a soft rumbling that drills its way into the tough Alberta ground, preparing you for the journey ahead as the narrator states that what you are seeing is “the largest industrial project in the history of humanity.” At first thought, you may think this statement is a little overestimated but as the movie progresses, you begin to agree.

The whole documentary takes place in the vast, minable and substantially bleak area surrounding Fort McMurray, Alberta. That particular area has seen substantial growth over the last decade. The massive hauler at the beginning alludes to the scale of the development and the determined spirit of the people who live there.The pace picks up as we meet the five contestants that are competing in a local karaoke contest. What do these people all have in common other than their passion for karaoke crooning? They all work on the oil sands.

Each of the characters that we get meet over the course of the film just get more and more curious with each song. First we meet Dan Debrabandere who is a rugged hauler operator. Next is Brandy Willier who is also a haul truck operator but for a different company in the area. After that is the eccentric Chad Ellis who is a rig manager and blues aficionado.  The next two, Iceis Rain and Jason Sauchuk, are both operators who share the same passion for belting love ballads at their highest possible octave.

All these oil sands employees are basically competing in this contest as a way to get their passion for music underway and leave the post-apocalyptic landscape of northern Alberta behind. Even though this movie is centred on singing, it’s not actually the karaoke that ends up being the most fascinating part of the documentary.

It’s understood that the film’s characters get the courage to sing, but it’s still just a bunch of people singing mediocre karaoke. It doesn’t even really seem like the characters are all that dedicated to winning the karaoke contest one of the main reasons this documentary happened.However, what Oil Sands Karaoke does do very well is give you a sense of what it’s like for the people who work in the oil sands and how it affects them. If the film had focused more on this, and less on showing people duplicate Britney Spears anthems, it would have been much more stimulating to watch.

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