Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands (2009)

26 August 2011

I thought I'd offer some thoughts on the 45-minute cine-doc, Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands, after winning a DVD copy through Neil Mitchell's blog The Fourth Wall, which over the last few weeks has been hosting competitions to give away films distributed in the UK by Dogwoof (Petropolis was the fourth such giveaway; the fifth and final one is for H2Oil and closes today, August 26).

Commissioned by Greenpeace and directed and photographed by Peter Mettler, Petropolis - whose title doubles as a brief synopsis - is a cine-essay capturing footage of the world's largest reservoir of a crude oil called bitumen, which lies beneath 4.3 billion hectares of boreal forest in north-eastern Alberta, Canada. The expanding industrial effort to produce this oil - which could grow to be the size of England, we're told - "releases five times more greenhouse gases than conventional oil production", which contributed "an estimated 40 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2007". Beyond the ecological effects, there are more immediate dangers: residents and experts in the vicinity note increased cancer rates, deformities in sealife and a growing threat to potato farming.

While it's difficult to write about the film without providing this context, the film itself has difficulties addressing them. As the DVD's blurb reads, the industrial complex in place in Alberta is "an extraordinary spectacle, whose scope can only be understood from far above", going on to note how "one machine's perspective [Mettler's camera] upon the choreography of others suggests a dehumanized world where petroleum's power is supreme".

But while the "aerial perspectives" are demanded by the sheer scale of this impressive and frightening industry, they also prove to be limiting. There are opening titles that provide some context, and a closing voice-over that imbues a righteous plea, but as a whole, the film acts more as a starting point for further discussion.

That's fair enough, though. As it is, the imagery here - edited by Roland Schlimme - is often astonishing. Captured from a helicopter, the opening shots fly over the green expanse of Alberta's boreal forest, as-yet-untouched, and makes its way to the destroyed areas as Vincent Hänni and Gabriel Scotti's electronic score grows more intense and ominous.

Paradoxically, the problem in cinematic terms is that the film is almost too beautiful to look at, its images given an abstract quality as Mettler's camera zooms in on water (90% contaminated after being used to produce bitumen) being pumped into tailings ponds big enough to be seen from space, or as it glides over the haunting clouds of smoke billowing relentlessly out of distant chimneys.

Given its 45-minute running length, Petropolis finds its most illuminating compliment in the 26 minutes of extras, consisting of 7 webisodes, which feature short interviews with a local fisherman, a farmer, a resident, and expert analysis from a climate scientist, a family physician, a Greenpeace campaigner and a water expert.

The film might have been strengthened as a more complete work had it incorporated these snippets, instead of including them merely as optional extras. These interviews aren't only contextual, they're crucial elaborations on the pictorial draw of the film: please watch them in their entirety here.

The final webisode is with Dr. Kevin Timoney, who investigates unpublished government reports on this oil-producing process. The concluding implication - not made explicit enough by the film itself - is that the world's governments are complicit with the interests of big business. Clearly, this kind of socially and environmentally destructive process is encouraged by the short-sighted demands of capitalism, and in order to put a stop to it before it sends our ecology into irreversible decline, we need to regulate our consumption of finite energy resources. That's a systemic problem not removed from the implications of global capitalism and the politics it governs. A change of government, then - as Timoney literally suggests - should be taken as a call for structural change: the current structure of society, governed by capitalism itself, needs to be abolished altogether if we are to continue progressing as a race.

Petropolis is supported by The Co-operative as part of its Toxic Fuels campaign: