The human face of the Alberta, Canada, oil sands is the boomtown of Fort McMurray, the busiest community in the province’s north — and arguably its loneliest for workers who come from all over the continent to toil on irregular shifts in remote locations. A new documentary, Oil Sands Karaoke, focuses on Bailey’s Pub where oil patch workers find common ground as contestants and enthusiastic audience members for a local karaoke competition.
The film features five oil sands workers: truck drivers Brandy Willier and Jason Sauchuk, heavy hauler operator Dan DeBrabandere, scaffolder Chad Ellis, and Massey Whiteknife, a local entrepreneur who performs as his cross-dressing alter ego Iceis Rain.
Director Charles Wilkinson notes that his main concern in selecting his subjects, after their industry involvement, was their musical ability.
“In a film with a lot of music, the audience won’t enjoy listening to main characters who aren’t very good singers,” he says. “But I also wanted people with a fascinating back story, who could articulate why they were part of the oil and gas support sector.”
Wilkinson recognizes that the Alberta oil sands project represents a controversial enterprise to some and economic salvation to others, but says he didn’t want to preach to his audience.
“Everyone featured in the film expressed a level of conflict between the addiction of the world to oil and gas, and the need to pay bills, student loans, mortgages and support payments to ex-wives,” he says. “I ask anyone who expresses any sort of belligerence whether they drive a car or heat their homes with oil or gas. The people who work in oil and gas are us. This is who and what it takes to produce two million barrels of oil a day. By humanizing that side of the equation it provides us with common ground to discuss the issues surrounding oil and gas production and in some ways I hope encourages us to be more tolerant and respectful of each other’s viewpoints.”
Bailey’s Bar also represents that same sort of tolerance, where seasoned oil industry veterans, college-aged students and performers forge a community.
“The performers take their karaoke seriously and the sheer energy in their performances after a nine-day shift of 14-hour days is inspiring,” Wilkinson says. “They’re able to get on that stage and capture the attention of a diverse crowd who are cheering them on and offering high-fives, united in a friendly atmosphere.”
Wilkinson says that audience response is often as interesting as the subjects of the documentary. After learning about the high wages offered by oil and gas sector companies, even some viewers who consider themselves environmentalists have expressed interest in a possible stint in the oil patch.
The line that gets the biggest reaction from audience members?
“It’s when Dan, this big burly guy with tattoos explains, ‘I tell the environmentalists that there was a gigantic oil spill here a million years ago and we’re just here to clean it up,’” Wilkinson says.