Environmental documentaries, while playing a crucial role in the education and exposure of important issues, often have a tendency towards the preachy and pretentious.
None more so than the latest short film by Peter Mettler, entitled Petropolis. It focuses on a huge pit mine, tailing ponds and petrochemical plant at the Alberta Tar Sands in Canada (the world’s largest capital, industrial and energy project). This mineral-raped landscape is poured over in great detail as the film consists of nothing more than seemingly endless aerial shots of the area.
So what begins as an impressive demonstration of how the natural environment has been radically changed by industrial intervention, quickly becomes a tedious succession of mines, mining vehicles, water run-off and gas burn-off; sort of like the outtakes for the companies promotional video.
Finally, after a good half hour of wide shots and white noise, a gruff American voice-over pipes up with a seemingly irrelevant story about the first balloon flight, which is then compared to the petrol powered helicopter used to view the site; both apparently giving new perspectives on our fragile world.
At last comes some valuable information to put things in context – a brief description of chemist Karl Clark’s experimentation to separate bitumen from sand – which lead to the mining of the vast tar sands and Karl vowing to never return, such were the consequences of his discovery.
The narrator then alludes to the risk of doing the same thing to the rest of the vast forested area, before posing the question, what next after petrol?
However, unlike even most shaming and guilt-ridden documentaries, there a lack of empowering message or shocking information, instead it feels like just an abstract art film that creates a general sense of ambivalence towards the plight of the area.
Clearly this piece isn’t meant to challenge the likes of An Inconvenient Truth or The Age of Stupid, but it really is so vague with its message that irritates far more than it informs.