The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Oscar short sparks controversy

December 19, 2008 |  1:35 pm

If you’re a documentarian, you know that while it’s a great honor to make the academy’s short-list for best documentary short, it’s almost impossible to get anyone in the media to write about your movie, since they’re almost totally obsessed with handicapping the ups and downs of the various actor and best picture races. But thanks to the Canadian government, in particular Alberta’s minister of culture, Leslie Iwerks’ documentary short “Downstream” has a shot at a little notoriety, which is just what a doc-short needs to steal a little attention from the endless speculation about Kate Winslet’s Oscar chances.

Downstream

Iwerks is no rookie filmmaker. The granddaughter of Ub Iwerks, Walt Disney’s first great animator, Leslie recently directed a documentary about Pixar, “The Pixar Story,” and was nominated for a 2006 Oscar for “Recycled Life,” her doc-short about the Guatemala City dump, the largest toxic landfill in Central America. In her pursuit of other environmental subjects, Iwerks discovered the controversial saga of the oil sands in Alberta, a parcel the size of Florida that is a big part of Canada’s oil excavation industry, even though the extraction of oil is apparently causing a huge increase not only in greenhouse gases but in human illness.

The main character in Iwerks’ short—which will eventually be part of a feature-length documentary—is Dr. John O’Connor, a family practitioner who discovered extraordinarily elevated cancer rates in the local aboriginal Indian population that lives near the oil sands. “The doctor suspects that the suspiciously high rates of cancer are the result of the dumping of toxic material in the local rivers,” Iwerks told me when we spoke this week. “But when he talked to a local reporter about his findings, he was charged with causing undue alarm in the community. If that charge is proven, he could lose his license.”

Eager to present a balanced point of view, Iwerks sought out a variety of oil and energy executives as well as Alberta’s minister of environmental affairs. “But no one would talk to us. The only person who went on camera was a media rep for the Canadian petroleum producers’ lobbying organization.”
Of course, doing a documentary about a potential environmental disaster in the distant reaches of Canada wasn’t what finally got Iwerks some attention. It turns out that when she raised funds for the film, which is largely bankrolled by Babelgum, a Web-oriented film network, she managed to score a $67,000 subsidy from the Alberta provincial government. But news of her short being short-listed for the Oscars prompted Alberta’s minister of culture to criticize the film, saying he didn’t know what the film was about when he approved the subsidy.

Now there’s talk about the provincial government imposing more creative control over the content of documentaries it funds—meaning, of course, that it might be impossible to fund a film in the future that is critical of local government policies and programs.

Iwerks defends the film’s objectivity. “I don’t think I’ve made a negative film at all,” she says. “All we’re doing is shedding light on a human rights issue. I’m not a scientist, but I think the proof is in the pudding. The authoritative reports that I’ve seen all show high levels of toxic chemicals in the water in that area. It’s not some tiny output of poison. The tailing ponds of toxic sludge are so big that you can see them from outer space. And that’s the water that often gets dumped into the local rivers. It’s something everyone should be concerned about.”

I’m getting a copy of the short to see for myself, but it sounds like exactly the kind of story that needs to be told. It certainly wouldn’t hurt if it got a boost from some awards-season attention. It’s another unsettling chapter in the story of America’s addiction to oil, since as Iwerks points out, we get the majority of our oil, not from Saudi Arabia, but from Canada. There’s a price to be paid for all our gas guzzling, a price that rarely is seen by those of us who simply pump gas into our cars. Iwerks has gone to the source, showing what our addiction has done to the health of the people who live near Canada’s oil sands. That’s where the picture isn’t very pretty.

If you want to learn more about the film---and the buzz it's started--go to its website http://downstreamdoc.com and see for yourself.    

Photo credit: Babelgum Presentation

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