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3 out of 4 stars


Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands Written and directed by Peter Mettler

The Athabasca oil sands (commonly known as the Alberta tar sands) have attracted Cree fishermen, European traders, oil explorers and workers, and in the past few years documentary crews. Toronto multidisciplinary artist Peter Mettler ( Gambling, Gods & LSD), the latest filmmaker to focus on the vast region, literally rises above his camera-toting predecessors to deliver a unique perspective in Petropolis, a compelling environmental art film that leaves the viewer up in the air.

Over the past decade, the escalation and impact of Canadian and international oil sands projects have created a big, complex and evolving story with an array of spins. There are, of course, the almost daily business news reports, including a major announcement of the second phase of the Surmont project earlier this week. The New Yorker, Time and National Geographic are just a few of the major U.S. magazines that have sent feature scribes to boom town Fort McMurray to get the dirt.

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But documentary film has proven one of the most accessible and powerful ways for the average person to gain a ground-level understanding of the business, environmental and human impact of what's happening in the region. Tom Radford's Tar Sands: The Selling of Alberta, Leslie Iwerks's Downstream and Shannon Walsh's H2Oil, three of the most prominent features, were all accompanied by a degree of controversy when they first screened.

On the surface, Petropolis, accurately subtitled Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands, hardly seems a film that will inspire controversy, despite being presented by Greenpeace Canada. We never hit the ground, let alone see or hear a talking head. The film's power is the contemplative space crafted by Mettler and his collaborators.

Mettler's frequent filmmaking style is that of visual personal essay, Picture of Light (1994), about his journey to "capture" the Northern Lights, is the most shining example. When he works as cinematographer for others, notably for Jennifer Baichwal's Manufactured Landscapes, his camera takes on the personality of a curious, often playful, observer.

In Petropolis, we move over the rivers and boreal forests until we reach oil extraction activity, with its matrix of roads and pipes, tailing pools, upgrading plants and smokestacks, voracious diggers and parade of dump trucks. Sparse use of text, particularly in the opening minutes, helps give us a sense of what we are seeing: facts about bitumen (heavy crude oil), the scope of the Alberta deposit, extraction methods, etc. But we soon get caught up in the sights of the flight: patterns, movement and light.

It's heartbreaking when it hits you that the overall visual experience of Mettler's film is like the journey of a bird, following a river route and then suddenly spotting strange creatures below as it searches for a place to land. Hundreds of birds die every year after landing in tailing pools filled with toxic water.

Mettler's soundtrack mixes natural, industrial and electronic sounds, providing subtle enhancement without pushing the viewer to feel wonder or horror as movie music so often, annoyingly, does. Only toward the end does Mettler's voice chime in with his brief, almost whimsical narration. Citing the first flight of a hot air balloon in 1783 France, he then refers to the oil sands as "a landscape that cannot be comprehended from the ground."

For 80 years we have made ingenious use of petroleum, Mettler says, "What will we do next?" He leaves us with something profound to contemplate as we return to terra firma.

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Petropolis runs Jan. 22-27 at 7 p.m. (also 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 24) at the Royal Cinema. A Q&A, featuring experts from the film and activist worlds, follows each screening.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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