Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands



Interview with Peter Mettler

Why did you make Petropolis?

There are a lot of paths that led to this, going back already 20 years.  I’ve always been interested in the way we humans have the ability to create technology out of our given natural environments.  My impression is that the technologies we develop are also part of “nature” and should be managed ecologically, as part of the system that is, in fact, life itself.

I have long been amazed at the disrespect towards our own home, our own bodies, in relation to garbage, pollution, destruction etc.  It seems that we may live within a crisis of perception, in that we are somehow able to disregard the harm we induce upon our own selves through our actions.  I’m interested in demonstrating the effects of some of our lifestyle choices — or perhaps more accurately — the lifestyles imposed upon us by a rather avaricious economic system, with its short-termed interests.

In exploring the nature of consciousness and seeing, I’ve been making films that try to immerse an audience into an experience of something in which they must also confront themselves.  The viewing experience becomes more of a meditation around a subject than strictly an absorption of information.  In previous films I’ve explored subjects like the Northern Lights or culture in Bali, but in some way they always explore the interconnectedness of things and how we perceive them.

There has been a lot of debate about the tar sands, but the opportunities to actually see and somehow experience them have been rare.  There is a lot of information readily available out there, from a variety of perspectives, but nothing that really lets you “feel” it.  The beauty of cinema is that it can deliver an experience at least somewhat close to the real thing — in this case, though, seriously lacking the smell.

I was in the process of researching the tar sands for my own next feature project, which in part explores clouds and what goes into them from the ground.  A fortuitous request about cinematography came in from Greenpeace at the same time and things evolved from there.  We all agreed on the importance of simply showing the tar sands to our own country and the rest of the world, in the interest of sparking constructive discourse.

Are the tar sands what you expected?

I was expecting some rather gargantuan smokestacks — which I found.  But they were dwarfed by the size of the rest of the vast open-pit mines and tailings ponds.  The industry that we actually physically saw was dwarfed once again by the comprehension of the potential size that it could become if fully developed.

And it didn’t stop there.  As one begins to understand many of the ramifications and issues entangled within the tar sands development, it becomes mind-bogglingly immense and important.  It is not only a manifestation of our current oil-based lives but also one that reflects our current consciousness and values.

What did you learn during the making of this film?

This would be a very long answer, perhaps another film, or a book — of which there are already some good ones for further reference.

But to be succinct, in a kind of random point form, I’d say — a lot of statistics and factoids, and how this all impacts not only the environment, but also economics, community, drug abuse, immigration, wildlife, international relations, territorial conflict, free trade agreements, consumer lifestyle, health, climate change, Native American culture . . . and the list goes on to implicate the intricacies of our daily living, our media and, as I said before, perception itself.

I put the word “perspective” in the title because indeed that is what was offered to us in the process of making this film — a perspective on a situation that, when considered in an associative way, has an immense importance in relation to so many aspects of our lives.

Peter Mettler is a Canadian filmmaker.  The interview above was published on the Petropolis Web site; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.  For more information about Petropolis, go to <>.

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