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Dirty Oil - Leslie Iwerks interview

Dirty Oil, Leslie Iwerks

Interview by Rob Carnevale

LESLIE Iwerks, the director of Dirty Oil, talks about some of the issues surrounding the new documentary, which lifts the lid on the devastating impact that Albertan tar sands developments are having on the environment and local First Nation communities.

The film receives its UK premiere on Monday, March 15, when it will also be screened at cinemas across the country, before being officially released on Friday, March 19…

Q. I enjoyed Dirty Oil. It’s another eye-opening documentary beginning with the surprise revelation that America now gets most of its oil from Canada. Did you know that before going in?
Leslie Iwerks: I didn’t know either. I would have said the same thing [as the people asked at the start of the documentary]. That’s why it was interesting for me to tell the story.

Q. It was your entry point? Were you approached to direct this, rather than happening upon the subject yourself?
Leslie Iwerks: I was approached by Babelgum, who funded this project. They wanted to do a series on global warming issues, so this is the first originally produced feature for them based on the idea of global warming issues.

Q. How long ago was that?
Leslie Iwerks: About a year and a half ago…

Q. So it’s come together pretty quickly?
Leslie Iwerks: It has… for a feature doc. We also did a short film from it. They gave me the money to do the feature and out of that we carved a short, which we submitted for the Academy [Awards]. It got shortlisted but didn’t get the nomination… we were very close. Once that was done, though, I finished the feature film and we put the chunk of the short into the feature.

Q. How has it been embraced in America?
Leslie Iwerks: Well, we haven’t really screened it yet. We screened it in The Hamptons, for a premiere there, and people were like: “Wow, we had no idea!” There was a bit of a buzz around that… but we haven’t had our full distribution yet. We’ve had screenings and every time people seem to be coming away saying: “This is crazy. I had no idea this is happening.”

Q. Is that a concern?
Leslie Iwerks: It is a little bit, for me. I think it’s a tough market right now for docs… and there’s a lot of environmental docs. So, what I’m hearing is that it’s saturated right now. Unfortunately, we’re in a saturation period, whereas maybe a year ago it would have been perfect because there wasn’t anything on this subject. We remain the only one, to my knowledge, that’s doing a documentary on Canadian oil. But we’ll find it. We’ve had offers… they’re not quite what we want. So, it’s about meeting more distributors.

Q. This isn’t a particularly doom laden documentary, unlike some, in that it does offer some hope for a solution, such as wind energy and ways of reducing our carbon footprints. Was that important to you?
Leslie Iwerks: I felt like we needed to throw out some solutions because otherwise what can people do. And there is a huge movement towards wind technology and hydro-technology and everything else. So, it was important to at least mention those and say: “Hey, these are our other opportunities that we can be thinking about and actively getting involved with.” I could take one of those and do a whole documentary on that… the pros and cons of windmills. In fact, some people who have seen the film have already said: “Oh windmills… that’s not the answer!” It’s a very contentious subject… this whole thing.

So, no matter which way you’re slicing it, you’re going to get critics and people that disagree or think we focused too much on one area, or too little on another. But the goal for any documentarian is to be able to say: “OK, this is the issue, here’s some of the stories, here’s what’s going on, and here’s what you can do about it…” And then let the audience go and research further. They might then come out and say: “I didn’t know that one windmill can generate over $300,000 of electricity every year… well, let me go and research that. Maybe I want a windmill on my farm to bring in money, or save money, or both.” So, these are the things that you try to do because you can’t tell every story. So, I really ended up framing it with the US saying ‘we had no idea most of our oil comes from Canada’. Then we go to Canada and learn about the who, what, why and when…

Q. And it’s a fascinating journey that the documentary takes you on…
Leslie Iwerks: Well, then we learn that this is very toxic and it has a very devastating impact on the environment out there [in Alberta]. And then we learn the effect that it’s having on the people and the cancer issues, and then on the land. But then we learn that the government is making huge amounts of money from this operation and a lot is getting pushed to the wayside, including people and the environment because of this money and because of the world’s need for this oil. I mean, regular good oil is going away – we’re not going to be able to get it for that much longer in the Middle East. So, the world will have to rely on heavier, dirtier ways of getting that oil, which is Tar Sands.

Dirty Oil

So, from that point we follow the pipeline down to the Midwest, we go to Indiana and Chicago and we see where that refinery oil is happening and the effects there. We see how BP, for one, is dumping toxic chemicals into the Great Lakes and getting away with it, and into the air and getting away with it. And how the National Resources Defence Council is suing them and winning, and making great strides towards curbing the increasing onslaught of chemicals into the environment.

Q. And you make it something that’s relevant to the world – not just America…
Leslie Iwerks: That was important. We needed to say this isn’t just some local Canadian issue or a US issue, but an issue around the world. It’s going on in Brazil, in India, in China… everywhere. So, what can we do about it? So, that’s when we bring in Lester Brown, who is the foremost authority on environmental issues and green technology… He’s spoken at the Clinton Global Initiative, he was very active in government for a long time on environment studies. He’s our No.1 expert to talk about this and he’s written numerous books and he is very emotional about where we need to be environmentally and where we can go… to try and educate the world. So, it was great to be able to end with him because I had no idea he was going to get as emotional as he did. He feels so passionately about this planet… I wish everybody would feel that same passion as he does about our planet and would treat it with respect.

Q. It’s a hard mindset to change though because it takes accountability. Lester clearly takes it, but people who are dependent on their cars, and all the benefits that oil brings, quickly turn their minds to something different once they’re asked to do something…
Leslie Iwerks: Well, we’re battling against that attitude but we’re in a hybrid situation right now between gas and green. It takes companies to bring us greener cars, and it takes those companies to bring us those cars in a way that’s affordable to the normal person. The moment we don’t have oil is the moment we’ll all go very quickly to green energy. The reality is that unless it’s a threat in our face, we don’t change very quickly. No one does… the US is far behind a lot of countries, in my opinion, in going greener and becoming more efficient from an energy point of view. Even here, I feel like people are more conscious of recycling and that kind of thing. But if you look at Norway, Amsterdam, France… they’re so much more ahead of that consciousness. So, my goal – at least as an American – is to say: “Hey, here’s one story about dirty oil…. This is what we should be doing.” We are the No.1 consumer of it, so what can we do to wean off of that. It’s not an easy fix and it’s not a quick fix. But at least it’s raising awareness.

Q. Have you noticed any acceleration in the changing of attitudes in America since the administration change from Bush to Obama?
Leslie Iwerks: Oh yeah. Obama is a God-send because of his outlook on where we need to be as a healthier nation and a greener nation. He’s already enacted legislation about curbing carbon emissions from cars and plants and that kind of thing. We discuss that in the movie as well and I think it’s very emotional too because he is the first President in a long time that’s actually given a shit about the environment. And I appreciate that. So, I wanted that to be a part of this documentary so that people can say: “Hey, we’ve got a leader again…” Because that’s what it takes, leadership – whether it be the President of the United States or the president of a major corporation… anybody that’s trying to affect change in that way. There are companies in Canada that are already boycotting dirty oil, and it’s companies like that, who stand up and fight against major issues, that will affect their customers. I think it’s from the top down and the bottom up – we just all need to hear each other.

Q. Have you sensed any change in the oil companies’ attitudes since the film has been completed? Or from the Alberta government?
Leslie Iwerks: I think they’re remaining steadfast… I just read something about [Ed] Stelmach [Alberta’s premier] and the ducks that died in a Syncrude tailings pond. It created all this uproar in Canada and the world. People were asking why it was allowed to happen and what are these tailings ponds really doing? And what about the animals, and the migration patterns, etc? What happens is… it’s the eco-system chain. So, if a bird lands in a tailings pond, normally it would sink. But what if it landed in The Athabasca River, drinks the water, eats toxic fish or whatever… then a hunter shoots the duck and eats the duck and they get cancer. So, it’s the cycle. And it’s existing up there. There is proof to it.

So, what’s interesting to me is that you have this lawsuit going on in Canada right now, with Syncrude about these ducks – it was 600 ducks that had died, now it’s 1,600 – but it’s just a symbol of the destruction. It could be human beings. But Stelmach is saying that he’s never seen a picture of the ducks. For me, it’s this disconnect. That’s shocking to me… that he’s not actively involved in one of the biggest lawsuits from one of the biggest oil sands companies. So, there’s a disconnect and a lack of interest in the environment and Aboriginal interests and concerns… and that’s shocking.

Dirty Oil

Q. How easy was it to talk to people? Were they afraid to talk? John, the physician who first raised concerns, was forced to move away…
Leslie Iwerks: A lot of people from companies didn’t want to speak. And John O’Conner had threats. So, that’s a prime example of if you go and try to create change, it’s a dangerous place to create waves when there’s so much money at stake. You wouldn’t think that about Canada – but when you’re talking about big oil and big money, you’re back in Russia! It’s like the Mafia!

Q. Did you ever feel under any pressure not to ask particular questions?
Leslie Iwerks: I felt when they looked at me while doing interviews I was being perceived as the typical muck-raker trying to find negative info who would try to spin what they were going to tell me. That’s not what I was doing. I wasn’t going to try and spin anything. I was just there to try and get the truth. But they just kept stamping out the same information and there’s no real heart or emotion to what’s really going on. I had just spent weeks at a time with the people of Fort Chipewyan, and Fort MacKay, and the chiefs, and hearing their stories, seeing their lives and feeling what they feel… and then I go and interview Mel Knight, the Minister of Energy of Alberta, who is very cold. He just says how it is and insists people need to get it and stop bitching all the time. There’s not a lot of empathy towards the cancer issues, or anything like that. So, when you immediately feel like you’re talking to this white wall right here… behind that white wall is a lot of issues. It’s very disappointing.

Q. How easy is it to keep those emotions in check?
Leslie Iwerks: Well, sometimes you have to have a point of view and an angle too. There are documentarians out there that have a very strong, one-sided view – like Michael Moore often – but there’s other filmmakers like myself that try to bring it… I might have my own angle, or my own point of view, but I try and at least bring both sides of the story to the public and let them decide for themselves what they want to believe. Mel Knight was kind enough to be one of the only people to grant us an interview, so I appreciate that and thank him for that. I wasn’t out to make him look bad at all… that wasn’t my intent and nor did I do that. I just let him speak for himself. So, it was fascinating to me to hear the amount of information that seems so researched on the science and environmental side, versus the amount of regurgitated facts that came from the government and the industry side. Every fact that was spewed out on the government’s side was completely torn apart by the other side. So, there was so much information it was hard to distil it all, to be honest.

Q. How involved will you stay on this subject?
Leslie Iwerks: Well, I’ll always be interested in it because I did a film about it. So, I’ll continue to talk about it, tell people about it and advocate for it. Hopefully, the film will get out, people will see it and it’ll create change. The goal for any filmmaker and film is to make an impact somehow and change people in some way or another – their way of thinking or their way of acting. So, that would be my goal. I think the co-op and I will re-team on some additional projects as far as following through more stories that are smaller in nature. They’ll go on Babelgum’s website, for instance. I might go up and do some more interviews in that area because they’re in major lawsuits against all the oil sands companies… it’s like the biggest litigation case in the history of Aboriginal communities.

Read our review of Dirty Oil