Real to Reel: Petropolis

What happens when a visionary filmmaker makes a documentary on an important environmental issue?

Beautiful doc on ugly subject hits Greenpeace mark

• Writer/director: Peter Mettler
• Producer: Spencer Tripp
• Production company: Greenpeace Canada
• Distributor: None
• International sales: Autlook Films
• Budget: under $1 million

What happens when a visionary filmmaker makes a documentary on an important environmental issue? Sounds like a setup for a joke, but the result, Peter Mettler’s Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands, is undeniably serious.

‘Petropolis is a beautiful film on a very ugly subject,’ says the film’s executive producer Spencer Tripp, who is also Greenpeace Canada’s communications director.

The subject of TIFF’s Canadian retrospective in 2006, filmmaker Mettler is a Toronto New Wave pioneer – who shot films for Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema, Jeremy Podeswa and Bruce McDonald more than 20 years ago. He has made a career directing documentaries about the northern lights (Picture of Light), Robert Lepage (Tectonic Plates) and chance and divinity (Gambling, Gods and LSD).

Now, he’s donated his services for a no-budget Greenpeace doc – hard costs were limited to several helicopter rides, a pilot, camera operator and post-production – which lyrically shows the devastation caused by the unearthing of crude oil in northern Alberta. The entire film is shot from the air. It shows the tar sands, a territory as large as England, and how the extraction of bitumen – a mixture of tar-like hydrocarbons derived from petroleum – has been devastating the environment.

Although investigative journalist Andrew Nikiforuk’s bestselling exposé Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of the Continent inspired Mettler to make Petropolis, the content is pure cinema, not didactic at all.

‘I felt especially for the tar sands it was important to have longer shots that show the relationship of the way things are – without cuts,’ he says of the helicopter shoot which is the basis of the film. ‘That starts to tell you the story of how big the environment is, and that this is a large [and often gorgeous] expanse of land.’