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From recoil to ruination: Petropolis and the future of the Canadian landscape.

The war against Nature assumed that Nature was hostile to begin with; man could fight and lose, or he could fight and win. If he won he would be rewarded; he could conquer and enslave Nature, and, in practical terms, exploit her resources. But it is increasingly obvious to some writers that man is now more destructive towards Nature than Nature can be towards man; and, furthermore, that the destruction of Nature is equivalent to self-destruction on the part of man. (1)



In order to posit some ideas about the future of Canadian cinema, I will focus on a primary motif in much of this nation's expressive arts: the landscape. From the paintings of the Group of Seven to the poetry of E.J. Pratt, the landscape has served as a powerful determinant of a Canadian sensibility. As Bart Testa demonstrates in his book Spirit in the Landscape (1989), there is even a landscape tradition in Canadian cinema, consisting of experimental films by David Rimmer, Rick Hancox, Jim Anderson, Raphael Bendahan, Joyce Wieland, Jack Chambers, Michael Snow, Richard Kerr, Barbara Sternberg, and Bruce Elder. (2) The predominance of the landscape as subject matter in Canadian art is related to a number of other tendencies such as realism, and particular attitudes towards nature and technology. In the ensuing study, I examine these themes in relation to Peter Mettler's documentary Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands (2009). Although the subject of landscape may have receded from more recent discussions on Canadian cinema (3), I argue that it remains an important aspect of contemporary Canadian art and consciousness. Like the Canadian landscape cinema discussed by Testa, Mettler's film eschews characterization and plot in favor of an aesthetic more akin to painting. At the same time, Petropolis displays formal features distinct from the previous generations of landscape cinema, and points to new questions regarding environmental concern. It is these elements that bare insight to some possible futures of Canadian cinema.

In Image and identity; Ref1ections on Canadian Film and Culture, R. Bruce Elder notes that Canadian art has tended to take on a realistic and often documentary character. (4) According to him, one of the primary factors in the constitution of this tendency has been the Canadian landscape. The feeling that the harshness of the landscape and climate was unknowable led to the development of a dualistic view of reality, consisting of a rupture between human consciousness and nature. (5) For Elder, a realistic image can reconcile the conflict between the mental and physical, as long as the accuracy of the representation of nature allows for human expression. (6) Although he acknowledges that every medium can achieve a harmony between accuracy and expression, he regards photography to be the best suited for representing the landscape and the anxiety it causes, as the mechanical recording process produces a high degree of accuracy, while formal and stylistic choices can allow for ample expression.

Whereas Mettler's forty-three minute documentary is comprised almost entirely of mobile aerial footage of the Athabasca oil reserves and the surrounding area, the fm achieves a symbiosis between accuracy and expression through balancing content and form in its representation of the blighted landscape. The film begins with an inter-title instructing the viewer about the oil operations and its environmental implications. The text states that the ancient plant life compressing underneath the boreal forest in northern Canada is now the second largest oil reserve in the world. Known as the "tar sands," this dirty mixture of sand and bitumen (a heavy crude oil) is mined in open pits or extracted through injecting superheated water underground. Not only is the project on its way to industrializing an area of forest the size of England, everyday the oil operations release the same amount of carbon dioxide as all the cars in Canada.

These harrowing textual insights are matched with images of a topography marred by open pit mining, fields of oily sludge known as tailings ponds, and the smokestacks and fumes of the bitumen upgrader. Whereas some of the on-screen text about the fate of the Canadian landscape is only speculation, none of the represented activities are staged--it is all business as usual as seen from the sky. The entire landscape is real, and so is the devastation. Often the camera will begin with an aerial medium long shot of a truck, or a person positioned in the centre of the frame, only to pull back to such a degree that the object on screen disappears into the vastness of the landscape. It is in these sequences that the viewer realizes the scale of the reality being represented.

However, the frequent use of vertical angle (straight-down) aerial cinematography adds an expressive dimension to the documentary footage. The oil operations are shot and edited in a manner that often presents homogenous fields of texture and color, rather than recognizable images of resource extraction, processing, and byproduct disposa1. Though the footage is an accurate representation, the horror of the environmental devastation is assuaged by the distanced aerial perspective. In a five minute long take sequence, the camera slowly hovers over the vein-like patterns of the tailings ponds, but without any trucks or other identifiable objects in the frame, the content of the image is indiscernible. In another sequencer the camera focuses on a rotating digger, mimicking its slow turning movement. The mechanical precision of the cinematography produces a hypnotic visual spectacle that detracts attention from the destruction of the landscape. Moreover, viewers are spared the smell of the toxic fumes, and they do not hear the noise of the industrial operations. The latter is replaced by a benign ambient soundtrack, which also masks the sound of the fuel driven helicopter facilitating he aerial perspective.


In other words, Petropolis presents a somewhat ambiguous representation of the oil operations. Though the film by no means celebrates the environmental pollution, the haunting beauty of the images can hardly be taken as an outright condemnation either. While the film project is sponsored by Greenpeace, Mettler chooses not to engage many of the issues that are causing concern among environmentalists. As Andrew Nikiforuk explains, the processing of one barrel of bitumen requires the consumption of three barrels of fresh water from the Athabasca River. (7) Ninety per cent of this water turns into tailings ponds, which leak into groundwater and produce rare cancers for the people in the downstream community of Fort Chipewyan. (8) Whereas Mettler includes ample footage of the Athabasca River and tailings ponds, there is never any mention of this problem. The special features section of the Petropolis DVD includes a set of interviews with local residents, environmetalists st5, and academics who speak frankly about the implications of the tar sands project. Since these are kept separate from the main feature, Mettler's film invites viewers to meditate on the situation in a manner that differs from conventional (didactic) methods of engaging environmental concern.

Technology and the Canadian Landscape

In a monologue near the end of the film, Mettler states that the aerial view offers "a new perspective of a landscape that cannot be comprehended from the ground." This incomprehensibility is similar to the incompatibility between consciousness and nature described by Elder, but there is a major difference. The landscape Mettler refers to is not the harsh Canadian wilderness, but rather a landscape blighted by technology and greed. At the same time, Eider notes that devastated landscapes are an important aspect of the Canadian discourse on art: Thus, expressions of environmental concern are nothing new to Canadian landscape art. Elder refers to the paintings of Tom Thompson of the Group of Seven, specifically his trio of works: Abandoned Logs (1915); Burnt Land (undated); and New Life After Hope. For him, these paintings convey Thompson's disgust towards the effects of technology on the forests of northern Ontario, and the increasing terror he felt about where technology was leading Canadians. (10) According to Elder, "a tragic vision" lies at the core of Canadian culture because nature--a fundamental necessity for humans to be fully humanized--is being eclipsed by technology. (11)
  Many Canadian thinkers and artists have viewed [the] enterprise of
  creating an intimate relationship with nature as a battle we are
  destined to lose. They have recognized that nature is in the process
  of vanishing, of being displaced by technology ... Much of Canadian
  art and Canadian thought, therefore, is devoted to a last-ditch
  effort to establish a satisfactory relationship with nature, a force
  that humanizes people by making them aware of their mortality,
  their tenderness. (9)

Despite the abundant images of sheer environmental devastation, Mettler's film does not fully submit to this tragic vision. Petropolis unfolds as an alternation between two opposing landscape images: wilderness and industrial pollution. At first, wilderness dominates. But slowly, signs of industrialization begin to creep in: smoke plumes in the far distance; residential development; and the triple atrocities of open pit mines, railings ponds, and the bitumen upgrader. Although images of industrial destruction occupy the majority of screen time, shots of the wilderness continue to surface throughout the film, in constant tension with the forces of human progress gone wrong. Mettler's decision to end the film with a shot moving through the forest in reverse urges for a worldview that prioritizes nature, rather than destructive progress.

However, this prioritization of nature does not reflect a complete unity between humanity and the landscape. Though the wilderness hardly appears threatening compared to the images of industrial pollution, Mettler's point of view remains isolated from both environments, consistently protected within the safe enclosure of the helicopter. In line with a recurring theme in Canadian culture, the helicopter seems to be a sort of garrison that shields the director from both the landscapes of wilderness and pollution. As Testa explains, the Canadian (he is referring to the English speaking settler society) response to the landscape engendered a particular cast of mind which Northrop Frye theorized as "the garrison mentality". (12) According to Frye, the Canadian experience consists of two spaces: the landscape with its inhuman scale and threatening otherness, and a safe interior space carved out for the sake of human survival. (13)

At the same time, Mettler's reliance on the helicopter does not necessarily reflect the total recoil from the landscape described by Frye. The act of filming the oil operations from a fuel driven helicopter is not so much a contradictory method for encountering the landscape, but rather a particularly Canadian commentary on technology. In Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis/McLuhan/Grant, Arthur Kroker explains that the Canadian psyche contains "a great and dynamic polarity between technology and culture, between economy and landscape". (14) According to him, the Canadian discourse on technology is fully implicated in the power of American empire, but it also threatens to exterminate any indigenous, popular culture, in Quebec or English-Canada. (15) As a result, the Canadian mind seeks to preserve, if only in memory, those valuable aspects of experience which have been obliterated by the technology; or, alternatively, to emancipate technology from within by rethinking its significance. (16)


The non-didactic representation of environmental pollution in Petropolis conveys the paradoxical nature of the Canadian discourse on technology. While the avoidance of obvious shadows of the helicopter, and the masking of the sounds of its motorization may initially come across as an effort to conceal the method of filming, by the end of the film, the mechanized gyroscopic movements of the camera are made emphatic, as if to lay bare the technology that enables the encounter with the landscape. Whereas the oil operations are a sign of Canada's industrial and technological development, Mettler's film is never a one-sided celebration or condemnation of technology. As a work of contemporary cinema, Petropolis revisits many of the principle themes of Canadian art. This is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of its treatment of the tar sands situation, since the oil operations are a global concern. Not only is the overall project financed by France, Norway, China, Japan, the Middle East, and the United States, the labor force is also global in scope, with people arriving from China, Mexico, Hungary, India, Romania, Atlantic Canada, and beyond. (17) In spite of these transnational connections, Mettler chooses to focus on the Canadian side of the equation. The fact that a filmmaker can still engage the theme of the landscape and the concerns of technology in a distinctly Canadian context leaves hope for a future of a Canadian cinema in this age of globalization.



(1) Margaret Atwood, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart LId, 2004, 73.

(2) Bart Testa, Spirit in the Landscape. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1989. This was the accompanying catalog for a Him program of the same title which was held at the Art Gallery of Ontario from March 28-April 24, 1989.

(3) I am thinking about books such as Christopher Gittings' Canadian National Cinema: Ideology, Difference, and Representation. New York: Routledge, 2002, and George Melnyk's One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.

(4) R. Bruce Elder, Image and Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier Press, 1989, 1.

(5) Ibid. 29.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Andrew Nikiforuk, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2010, 3.

(8) Ibid, 3.

(9) Elder, 34-35.

(10) Ibid, 35.

(11) Ibid.

(12) Testa,1.

(13) Ibid.

(14) Arthur Kroker, Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis/McLuhan/Grant. Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1983, 8.

(15) Ibid, 12.

(16) Ibid, 13.

(17) Nikiforuk, 23.
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Author:Ginnan, Alexander
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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