Saturday, October 17, 2009

[TIFF 2009 Review] Oil Rocks - City Above The Sea (La Cité du Pétrole) (World Premiere)

This Is It

Tokyo International Film Festival had started the "natural TIFF" section in 2008 with a focus on ecological-based films, and it's a fine initiative where films about the ailing earth get put under the spotlight. These films also allow one to journey to environments seldom seen, such as last year's Enncounters at the End of the World, a documentary made by Werner Herzog, and this year, it's a trip to Oil Rock, the world's first offshore oil city based on Josef Stalin's audacious project, no matter the costs, for energy sources just after WWII when the USSR was desperate for oil. The result? A 6 hours boat trip from the nearest shore lie 2000 oil wells connected by more than 3000km of bridges in its heydays, sitting in the Caspian Sea.

Inherited by Azerbaijan in 1991 and being off-limits, Marc Wolfensberger's documentary is of course the next best alternative to being there, with close-ups and wide angled helicopter shots just barely covering the vastness that is Oil Rock. You get a flavour of its magnificence in size, and through archived black and white footage, helped made it possible to taste what life back then was like in a time capsule glimpse, with patriotic, morale boosting songs celebrating those who build and operate the rigs, focused on ensuring the Fatherland gets the energy nourishment it needed.

But of course not everyone is keen to work in a remote location away from civilization. The film adequate compares and contrasts the attitudes of people then and now, as well as how the city looked like before, where I was quite amazed that they even have locomotives running! While it's clearly quite propaganda in treatment, the archived shots do show to some degree the difficulties faced then (though the people are always wearing permanent smiles), and through interview accounts, we learn how morale sapping it was beneath the glossy veneer. Danger too lurks at every corner, which the film spent significant time dedicated to a 1957 diaster.

The film looked comfortably in place alongside National Geographic, However, it seemed that Oil Rock was never the documentary to go in depth into its ecological themes, where issues like pollution, spills and the question of what would happen when the oil wells finally run dry (estimated in 20 years), all given rather cursory mention. It plants the thought with you through purposed shots and memtion, but I suppose a 52 minute mid-length documentary can only cover so much, with topics ranging from renovations and funds for modern living amenities thanks to the recent global oil price surge, to religion, fears and history. While most of the bridges are gone, the pockets of property remaining is still home to and supporting the lifestyle of over 2500 workers today, which thanks to this film, you'll get a chance to take a peek into.

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