DOC AS A GAME: Fort McMoney oiling up for Round 2

Fort McMoney GigCity EdmontonThe future of the Sim City version of Fort McMurray depicted in Fort McMoney – half documentary, half interactive video game – did not turn out very well.

Changes suggested by 309,000 viewer-gamers between Nov. 25 and Dec. 22, 2013 may have reduced greenhouse gas emissions in the Northern Alberta boomtown by 58%, but the resulting unemployment climbed to 28%, incomes plummeted and businesses closed, leaving what sickly and impoverished citizens who remain to scrape for survival in a scarred hellscape that stands as a grim reminder to humanity’s hubris. You’ll have to imagine that last part. Filmmakers didn’t go that far.

Fort McMoney GigCity EdmontonThink of this as a documentary where you get to be the editor. Each choice sends you to a different clip, into a different interview with one of the many real residents of the real town, and all your decisions have an effect on the outcome. There are no actors. All the footage is real. It’s the medium that’s unusual.

“Nobody watches the same movie,” says filmmaker David Dufresne, but says that most of the people who played Round 1 made particularly environmentally friendly choices and “transformed the city.” The stats will be reset with Round 2 starting Jan. 26.

Gamers expecting Grand Theft McMurray might be disappointed. Attempts to buy crack, get drunk, blow all your money at the casino, pick up a girl, crash your truck and wind up in jail will be met with failure. Instead you are invited to ask questions of the mayor, or if you prefer, a homeless guy – neither of whom will help you score.

“It’s not that kind of game,” Dufresne says. Fort McMoney is at its heart a serious documentary exploring a serious issue. Asked why he – a man born in France who now lives in Montreal – decided to come all the way out to Alberta to create the project, he replies that we’re all complicit.

Fort McMoney GigCity Edmontont2“I understand the competition between East and West Canada,” he says, “But it is absolutely not my point of view. Fort McMurray is fascinating. It is a great, great city where we can learn a lot of things about society, for sure, but also ourselves. What’s going on in Fort McMurray is our own responsibility. Everybody in Canada has a link with Fort McMurray. It is civilization’s choice. This is our choice. We are addicted to oil. That’s the question. We have to think about it. We have to debate about it. And a lot of people want to debate.”

Dufresne isn’t aware if Neil Young has played Fort McMoney or not – “like anyone, he is welcome to play the game” – but says that his subject city is no Hiroshima.

“I think it’s very tricky to do comparisons,” the director says. “I understand why he said that. It’s a big statement that everybody heard about. But Hiroshima was for killing people. The oil industry is not for killing people. The question is: Could you live in that kind of industry for a long time? And we know from Fort Chipewyan that there are big health problems there.”

During the two years he and his crew spent examining Fort McMurray and its people, including two months interviewing 50 subjects in 22 different locations, Dufresne says he personally saw a giant-headed mutant fish a local fisherman pulled out of a nearby river. He interviewed an area doctor frustrated there hasn’t been a serious investigation on the effects of the industry on public health. The area is an environmental disaster, say many, the highway is a death trap, and all that money has a downside.

“There is no free land in Fort McMurray. You cannot build a house,” Dufresne says. “One of the reasons there are so many problems is that the cost of living is very high. There are a lot of problems with homeless people. Some people I met work for the industry but they don’t have enough money to pay rent. We did an interview with the lady from the food bank and she said a lot of her customers are teachers, nurses, police officers, because they don’t have enough money. Everything in Fort McMurray is so expensive.”

Presenting a free feature length documentary to marry filmmaking and video games is pretty risky, “but it’s exciting because it’s risky,” Dufresne says, and sees a time when the two arts will “merge” to get deeper into their subjects. Fort McMoney is a pretty deep story, but it’s familiar. Remember Edmonton after oil was discovered? Anyone?

“It’s a Canadian story,” the director says. “We find some resources, we go there, we take it out of the ground and we leave.”

Or stay, as the case may be.