One slick mess: An interview with H2Oil’s Shannon Walsh

0 Posted by - November 23, 2009 - Conversations, Features, Screen

Walsh with DOP Alan Kohl, on location in Alberta.

Walsh with DOP Alan Kohl, on location in Alberta.

Shannon Walsh, working with the independent Montreal documentary production house Loaded Pictures, has created a powerful, stunning documentary on the Alberta tar sands eco-disaster called H2Oil. It was recently shortlisted for a whole whack of awards at Montreal’s documentary festival, RIDM, where I had a chance to ask Walsh a few questions.

[Art Threat] What gave you the idea to make H2Oil?

[Shannon Walsh] Aaron and Cathy, the couple in the film, were really the inspiration to make the film. Cathy was really concerned about water in Alberta, and asked a few friends to come out there to get to the bottom of what was going on. They talked to Alan Kohl and I  both and it was one night, soon after their visit, where Alan and I were talking and both of us just thought we had to do it, we had to go out and see what was happening. It was really a spur of the moment decision but it felt right. A good friend Candice Soave agreed to help out and came along as well and days later we were with Aaron and Cathy at their spring filming their reaction to the water levels decreasing. We were so enraged and passionate. I couldn’t believe that there was no one protecting the water.  We started digging more into the issues, and once I realized the extent of the impacts and importance of what was going on in the tar sands, and our government’s absolute lack of power, I knew I had to make a film about it. Once we got in gear, Sergeo Kirby, one of the producers of the film, found and article about Fort Chipewyan and what was happening there and we jumped on the story. It all kind of spiraled from there.

Was it a difficult film to make in terms of money, access, story, time, etc?

It was difficult in some ways more than others. We put a pretty tight demo together after our first shoots and were able to secure funding to make the film. I think it was just in the collective consciousness that it was time for a film on the tar sands to come out. It took a long time, of course, to build the relationships with people, to gain access, etc. I spent months on the phone with government and industry and had a lot of interviews denied. The story was constantly making and re-making itself, pretty much right up till the very end. It was really a moving target and I had to keep on my toes, keep researching and really try to feel out where people were at in terms of how much they knew about the subject. All in all, it was a really difficult process. Probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

Speaking of difficult accomplishments, you made this film while completing a PhD in Education and Anthropology. Can you discuss the relationship academia can potentially have with art and activism?

I think that activists are really always learning, researching, reading and sharing knowledge. Inside the university it takes on a different tone, for sure, but having some time to put into thinking through how capitalism and power operate at this moment in history can really help clarify what we are going to do about it. As long as you don’t get stuck in the ivory tower and forget what it’s all about, I think teaching and learning are part of an ongoing revolutionary praxis.

And now that the intense process of making the film is over, has it been well-received at screenings? Will it open commercially? When? Where?

We’ve had great response everywhere we have shown the film. Packed houses from coast to coast, as well as in Norway and Italy. We are opening commercially theater by theater. Upcoming dates are:

Ottawa – Mayfair cinema, November 27-30
Montreal – Cinema Parallele, December 4

Watch for upcoming openings in Vancouver and Toronto and other Canadian cities, as well as television air dates on Global in English and Tele-Quebec in French.

One of the enormous tailing ponds for the tar sands.

One of the enormous tailing ponds for the tar sands.

What do you want people to take away from the documentary?

I would really like viewers to understand it is not only the absurdity of the tar sands we are talking about it, but the conditions which have made even such a ridiculously destructive project seem like a good idea. Beneath it all is a society that is unable to face up to the most pressing concerns of our time — climate change, peak oil and the end of available fresh water – because of our suicidal desire to maintain a capitalist system that is on self-destruct.

Why documentary, and not a book for instance?

Humans are visual creatures, and I really believe in the power of the visual, as well as the power of being able to hear for yourself the testimonies of people living in the area. Those images, and those stories, jump out at you in a film in a way they just can’t off a page. Once people see the images, you have to convince them why it’s not a bad project, not the other way around. The truth is that visual literacy is much higher these days as well. I’d wager a bet that people watch more films than they read books. It’s the medium of our time. The power of film can’t be understated.

Given this power, it seems you may be more likely to make another film rather than write a book. If you were to make H2Oil Part II what would be in the film that wasn’t in the first one?

I’d love to include the stories about the Temporary Foreign Workers, the people quitting the industry, the amazing rise of awareness around the world about what is going on, the opening up of pipelines through the north to the west coast with the aim of lifting the moratorium on tanker traffic, the pending approval of the reversal of the Enbridge Trail Breaker pipeline to east Montreal to refine tar sands bitumen here….

The global story is unfolding quickly too. It’s really starting to touch so many people as these pipelines span the continent and people are feeling the effects. It was amazing to see the Norwegians all riled up about the role their government and industry is playing in this. To be honest, as I’ve said before, there are a million films to be made on this subject. It’s huge. Really huge. And it’s getting bigger all the time.

Considering the enormity of the tar sands and the political and industrial apparatus that supports the whole operation, what is the single most effective action a person can take to resist/stop the tar sands eco-disaster after seeing your film?

At the moment we’re pretty much facing peak everything. What we need is action. Do something, that’s the bottom line. Courage is contagious. Industrial capitalism is not a given. We have to start taking seriously the need to protect what is left and fight against further destruction. In whatever way we can, in whatever capacity you have personally. I think the only difference is really going to be between those who do nothing and those who do something.

I know that sounds vague, but it isn’t. Really, there is so much to do. There is no “single most effective” action. It is collective action from all different fronts with all different strategies and tactics. There’s putting pressure on banks like RBC who are major investors in the tar sands; supporting indigenous rights and the struggles of indigenous peoples; pressuring political leaders to voice opposition; developing sustainable communities and new ways of living beyond oil; getting involved in direct actions to slow down or stop what is happening; organizing education events and spreading the word; hosting screenings and discussion groups; shutting down the parts of the machine that come to your backyard, wherever you are, or whatever local projects are planned near your community; quitting your job if you’re part of the destruction and joining the resistance…

Really, the tar sands need action. The earth needs action. This is a critical moment in the history of humanity.  You’d be amazed at how many stories I get about people quitting their jobs in the oil sands. From all levels too – from government to industry. It’s really happening on a staggering scale. I really encourage people to share those stories. It makes a difference. I’m not joking, courage is contagious.

In order for people to act with courage and conviction, they require information. Since mainstream media has been remiss in providing solid, critical information and reportage on the tar sands, where can audiences go to find news and information on this issue?

• The Dominion is a great, independent grass-roots cooperative media resource that keeps things real about what is going on:
• Oil Sands Truth also keeps up to date info on what is going on and has some excellent maps to give a real sense of the scale we are talking about:
• Indigenous Environmental Network is always a really solid source of information, as well as having resources that deconstruct the role of false solutions like CCS and REDD:
• Our website also has links to a bunch of other sites and orgs that keep track of the tar sands.

Thanks for those tips, I hope our readers check out all those resources that are so readily available. A last question: what are your favourite five recent political pieces of art ( this can be film, performance, painting, etc)?

Franklin Lopez’s “End:Civ” project is awesome. Support him! The demo is online here:  “END:CIV is a film that examines our culture’s addiction to systematic violence and environmental exploitation, and probes the resulting epidemic of poisoned landscapes and shell-shocked nations. Based in part on Endgame, the best-selling book by Derrick Jensen, END:CIV asks: “If your homeland was invaded by aliens who cut down the forests, poisoned the water and air, and contaminated the food supply, would you resist?”

Another great film I just saw recently was Under Rich Earth by Malcolm Rogge about the conflict in Junin, Ecuador caused by the really messed up Canadian mining practices there. Ondi Timoner’s “We live in Public”. An amazing, thought provoking film. It’s not that new, but I just watched “The Trap” by Adam Curtis. He is one of my heroes. His work and analysis is excellent. The Cove – Totally well done, inspiring and exciting. It made me want to act.

I also have to plug the wicked, grass roots political film Myths for Profit made by my close friend Amy Miller. It’s a doc that slices a knife through the received wisdom of what Canada is all about.

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