VIFF Capsule Reviews: Story of My Death, Oil Sands Karaoke

Story of My Death (Albert Serra)

Albert Serra’s Story of my Death  is… uncomfortable. One part costume drama, one part horror film, and a significant part absurdist farce, it is a combination that doesn’t sit well with many viewers judging by the number of walkouts last night.

Serra uses an aging Casanova as the center of his tale, a gross man who is always eating while he talks, causing food to dribble down his chin as he rhapsodizes on his life. He also frequently goes to the bathroom and giggles as he does his business. As the viewer increasingly asks how such a disaster of a man could have such a gloried reputation, Casanova and his manservant head to the Carpathians for a vacation. There they stay with a simple country family and Casanova’s airs are slowly reduced as the countryfolk seem to find him more amusing than romantic, while none other than Vlad the Impaler arrives and starts having his way with the ladies in violent fashion.

Is he there to suggest that actions are sexier than words? That aggressive men are what the modern woman prefers? The contrast in “wooing” styles certainly is saying something, but Serra keeps his cards close to his chest, making his point and the film itself rather impenetrable. Still, there is a certain something here I found fascinating, a toying with the viewer that reminded me of Buñuel, using shock value and outrageous moments to force attention.

Oil Sands Karaoke (Charles Wilkinson)oilsandskaraoke

Easier to digest was Charles Wilkinson’s Canadian documentary Oil Sands Karaoke, a look at the city of Fort McMurray where most of the oil sands are produced in Alberta. Wilkinson uses the existence of a karaoke contest in the heart of oil country to show how, amidst the inhuman ripping apart of the Earth, there is a surprising beating heart. Using simple face-to-camera style personal narratives, he lets a handful of locals who sing and drive massive trucks tell their stories in humorous and touching ways. The story of a gay man who is likely Fort Mac’s only drag queen is particularly brutal, as he recounts his trials as he tries to find somewhere to fit in.

Wilkinson uses imagery to let us understand the scale of devastation that the oil sands are causing, not shying away from the negatives at all. And the contrast of inhuman environmental disaster with the narratives about nice people, trying to make a living and loving life as they prepare for the karaoke competition, is the point: Fort McMurray is an enigma. The doc won’t change anyone’s mind about Big Oil, but I don’t think it is trying to.