New West Doc Fest – Day 1

Tonight was the first night of the First Annual New West Doc Fest.

The turn out was pretty good, including the Mayor and Councillors Cote, Williams, and Harper. After a bit of mingling with the sultry tones of the Redrick Sultan Jazz Trio, the main event began.

There were three short films before the feature documentary of the night.

The first was “Meathead”, a strangely funny 3-minute short made by students at Pull Focus Film School. It was strangely funny, because you could see most of the jokes coming, but the actor managed to sell the punchlines with a turn of expression that made you laugh. Quick, irreverent, with a message, student film-making at it’s best.

Two documentary shorts were on the subject of the proposed Enbridge oil pipeline to Kitimat. The animated talk-piece “Cetaceans of the Great Bear” told of the threat to cetaceans represented by increased tanker traffic. Although the animation and graphic treatments were at times quite compelling, the message came across a little too strident and wrapped in over-the-top rhetoric to be effective as a message to anyone but the true believer. Let’s just say Dave Brett might not approve. The second, “Oil in Eden” is a little richer in actual content, and tells a much more complete story about the reasons for the oil pipeline, the potential risks, and the groups (especially first nations) who are against the idea.

The main feature was “Burning Water”, a story about a couple of farmers in the outskirts of Calgary with the little problem of flammable drinking water. Although the trailer makes it look like this is about a pissed-off farmer who won’t take it any more, the reality of the story is much more nuanced. This is because of the approach the owners of Valhalla Farm, Fiona and John Lauridsen, take to the issue.

Their problems started when energy giant Encana created a few “coal bed methane” gas wells on their property using “hydraulic fracturing”. Fiona takes a rational approach of asking Encana to do something about it, until Encana determined it wasn’t their fault. She ten takes the rational approach of going to the Government, who do something worse than doing nothing: they are actively indifferent to her plight. John takes the non-confrontational approach of just dealing with it and trying to move on, much to Fiona’s frustration, until he finally decides to strike back at Encana in a rather humorous way.

What makes this more than a simple David-vs-Goliath story is the fact the town in which the Lauridsens live relies on grant money from Encana for their community theatre (a major economic driver), their library, their parks. The Lauridsens even rely on EnCana for non-farm income: from the land-use settlement for the wells and Fiona for her part-time job in the community theatre. They are acutely aware that Encana is an important part of their economy; they just want to be able to continue living on their farm, seemingly made unliveable by Encana’s activity. In the end, all they want is Encana to respect their issue, and Encana, for their own reasons, cannot.

Unfortunately, the story arc is left unfinished, we don’t really know what the solution is, nor are we left with a hint of what the solution will be. But you are not left with the feeling that Fiona’s simple dream of living on her Prairie Valhalla is a sustainable one.

The Doc was followed by a brief but informative Q&A session with the Pembina Institute’s Matt Horne. It seemed the only positive way forward was to assure that we compel our government to develop and enforce a regulatory regime that protects the environment, to counter the forces behind run-away exploration and development of oil and gas, especially in BC’s north-east. However, between BC’s inability to modernize it’s Water Act, the weakness of our groundwater regulation, the fact the Oil and Gas Commission can overrule any BC law, and our current government’s commitment to “reduce red tape” for resource extraction, I am not left filled with confidence.

But hey, tomorrow’s four documentary films have a chance to lift my spirits!

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