Green issues: the dirty truth

Leslie Iwerks is the first to admit there’s no sexing up the topic of toxic oil sands, but in Dirty Oil she’s made a documentary that’s got everyone thinking. The Oscar-nominated film-maker describes what it was like taking on the “big oil” officials, how the film’s changed the way she lives her life and what it’s like to be the granddaughter of the man who co-created Mickey Mouse.

An oil soaked bird struggling against the side of the HOS, an Iron Horse supply vessel at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana.
An oil soaked bird struggling against the side of the HOS, an Iron Horse supply vessel at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana.

Leslie Iwerks will readily admit there are more glamorous film topics than oil.

“It was always going to be a hard sell,” she says down the phone from her home in Santa Monica, California.

“I mean who wants to go and see a film about oil, it’s not very commercial. The biggest key for me was to try to wake people up and get them to understand why they should watch this.”

The film, which lifts the lid on the reality of oil production, begins with Americans being asked where they believe their country’s oil supply comes from. As you’d presume, the Middle East is mentioned again and again, when in fact the truth is a lot closer to home: Canada.

“Ironically, being an American, I had no idea that we got the majority of our oil from Canada,” admits Iwerks. “It was quite a revelation to go up there and see what’s going on and see how they’re extracting it.”

She travelled to the vast and toxic Northern Alberta tar sands over the course of a year where a ‘sacrifice zone’ the size of Florida has been created for oil excavation for the US.

Part of the multi-billion pound oil industry, it’s been described as a modern day “black gold rush”, but the tar sands could be causing a huge increase in greenhouse gases as well as affecting human health.

Dirty Oil came about from an Oscar-nominated short film Iwerks made called Downstream, which focused on the efforts of local GP, Dr John O’Connor.

In 2006, he voiced his concerns that cancer levels in the aboriginal Indian plantation of Fort Chipewyan, located close to the oil sands, were abnormally high. Suspecting this was linked to the dumping of toxic material in local rivers, he told a local reporter but was accused of causing undue alarm by the authorities and faced four professional misconduct charges. He’s since been cleared.

“In the short film, I was telling the story from his point of view, so focused on him as a character, whereas the feature film became more about the global issue,” says Iwerks, who reveals locals made it known her presence in Canada wasn’t welcome.

“I got an email or two from people when Downstream came out who just didn’t want me to be up there telling the story, saying that I should stick to my own country and issues,” she says.

“But whenever you uproot a story, it’s like picking up a log from the ground and all these ants come up from beneath it. It’s going to upset people.”

As part of the documentary, Iwerks spoke to ‘big oil’ officials, politicians, doctors, environmentalists and the First Nation communities directly affected by the largest industrial project on the planet.

“What really affected me was listening to those whose lives have been significantly changed because they were uprooted when the oil sands came on to their land,” says Iwerks.

She was also shocked to hear what an oil sands worker told her off the record. “He said, ‘You have no idea what’s happening behind-the-scenes and the things they [the oil bosses] say not to tell anybody and the cover-ups’.”

Iwerks says it was imperative to remain objective and cover all sides of the story.

“My job is to just create the awareness and try and get everyone’s voices in a film and make it entertaining and informative,” she says. “That’s the tricky thing I certainly feel as a documentary film-maker.”

She also wanted to provide answers and solutions. As she says, “A lot of documentaries just tell you what the problem is and then it’s pretty depressing at the end of it because you don’t know what you can do.”

Her answer was to get Lester Brown, a leading expert in environmental awareness, to be the positive voice at the end of the film.

“He became a significant voice, [explaining] that we can all be involved and he was pretty emotional about it,” she says. “He’s very passionate about trying to change people’s awareness so in our everyday lives we can all do small things to help the environment, stop using oil and help recycle and try and make the planet cleaner.”

Iwerks herself says she’s made changes to her life since making the film.

“I try to economise. I’m in LA and the traffic here is terrible, so I don’t commute anymore. My office is six blocks away from my house, so I’m definitely saving on drive time.”

The grand-daughter of the great animator Ub Iwerks, Walt Disney’s first business partner and the man responsible for co-creating Mickey Mouse, and the daughter of Oscar-winning Don Iwerks, the co-founder of Iwerks Entertainment, she says she grew up “behind the scenes”, believing it shaped her future career.

She attended film school and started making movies as soon as she graduated, moving to documentaries when she decided to make a film about her grandfather’s work called The Hand Behind The Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story.

“The story had never really been told and Disney supported my wanting to tell his story and give him credit,” she says. The documentary was a success and led her to make documentaries including The Pixar Story and the Oscar-nominated Recycled Life about the Guatemala City dump.

“I think that was the film that changed me and made me look at things a lot differently, seeing how people live and the wealth versus poverty. It just makes you appreciate things so much more and get perspective, especially in LA where there’s a lot of greed and a lot of wealth.”

There’s also immense gas guzzling, not only in LA but across the country. America’s petrol consumption is more than the 20 countries that follow it on a list of the world’s worst culprits combined.

“There’s nothing clean or pretty about oil, but it’s part of our way of life and the question becomes how can we wean ourselves off it and use something that’s less polluting and harmful to many areas of life?”

She remains hopeful change will happen but also realistic.

“There are so many billions of dollars tied up with oil that it’s a naive thought to think that could ever happen but at the same time we should think how much oil do we need to consume and could we be doing it another, cleaner way.”

Dirty Oil was released on DVD on Monday, September 27.