By Sam Littman.
Not one element of Astrid Schau-Larsen’s documentary The Good Neighbour is superfluous. For this and many tangential reasons alone it is appreciable; the 58-minute investigative effort principally concerned with relaying information and opinions as concisely as possible is satisfied with its borderline feature-length running time, sustains an acute focus on the subject, and the camera calls attention to everything but itself. Documentaries concerning oil invariably proselytize but rarely in such an endearingly humble, non-confrontational manner, traits embodied by the film’s primary subject, Julie Strand Offerdal—a master’s student studying in Montreal—whom the film finds currently in a rut writing her thesis on the social investments of a rapidly expanding oil conglomerate, necessitating a cross-country trek in order to learn from the affected population first hand due to the conglomerate’s lack of transparency regarding the more intimate details of its ventures.
The “good neighbour” in question is Statoil, the world’s 11th-largest oil and gas company with a staggering $1.17 trillion dollars in revenue in 2012. Interestingly and admirably, the documentary does not concern itself with facts and figures but lets the population of Offerdal’s current town, Alberta, Canada—where Statoil has recently purchased thousands of square miles of minable real estate—personally express the dire consequences of the conglomerate’s intervention. Acknowledging that research from afar will not yield the information she seeks, Offerdal sets off with intention of making the long journey using only leftover frying oil from restaurants along the way instead of patronizing gas stations. Noting that one actually hears very little from the people who live in the area, Offerdal defies the typical binary of the company’s claims and environmentalists’ retorts by immersing herself in the community, an untraditionally academic but infinitely more productive means of understanding the effects of oil company imperialism so often analyzed from a deceiving distance.
With her plaid shirt, functional hiking boots and soft-spoken but determined nature, Offerdal could hardly be mistaken for an extremist. Indeed, her master’s thesis is all that could even qualify her as an activist; she is merely curious and concerned. The plucky, humming score reinforces the charming modesty of her character, soft-spoken but assertive, the very opposite of the post-grad eco terrorist portrayed by Dakota Fanning in Kelly Reichardt’s recently released Night Moves (2013) with her similar dressed-down uniform of a pale green hoodie and hiking boots. Interviews with Statoil residents from the most embattled areas of Alberta are embedded in the course of her journey, while Offerdal is the figure around which they orbit, the only character not impacted by oil. Schau-Larsen cleverly orients the story around Offerdal’s trek in such a way that one might assume the interviews conducted with residents of Alberta were done by Offerdal alone—her story and that of the victims of the collateral damage inflicted by Statoil run parallel to one another, in seamless fashion.
Schau-Larsen does not tell you that Statoil is a monster. That proclamation, albeit in so many words, is left to the residents of Alberta. The conglomerate’s heinously manipulative approach leaves one feeling profoundly sorry for the disenfranchised citizens so easily taken advantage of. Statoil gave out Christmas gifts in exchange for signatures of approval that the momentarily merry people were too overcome with gratitude to properly consider. That was practically all it took for Statoil to tear apart the land, both literally and figuratively. But it isn’t quite all bad. Statoil’s arrival provided hundreds of job opportunities to a largely impoverished community, pitting ethics against economics and in a war headed, on the former end of the spectrum, by the indigenous First Nation tribes, though they never stood a chance against the Norweigan juggernaut, a corporation that boasted higher revenue than Google, Comcast and Coca-Cola according to Forbes’ 2013 rankings. The tribulations of the First Nation inhabitants of Alberta comprise much of the latter half of the documentary.
The Good Neighbour is hard to praise as a film, more educational than it is cinematic, yet in that same sense it’s a winning work. Schau-Larsen is clearly not concerned with beautifying the story and shouldn’t be penalized for opting to deliver a piece that concerns itself almost exclusively with relaying the difficulty of coping with such a titanic intrusion. The recently purchased oil sands that Offerdal wants so badly to see for herself and eventually finds, teary eyed, are not given special visual treatment, not even one isolating shot, the director instead sticking with Offerdal and her first display of emotion in the documentary, the oil sands in the background. This intense, genuine moment links Offerdal with the poor First Nation peoples at the perfect moment in the documentary and it isn’t the least bit melodramatic.
Lamentable, however, is the inexcusable lack of attention to thoroughly cinematic elements in rare but important cases. For instance, the stilted, clumsily designed digital map that serves as the end of the prologue and gives onto the title is silent for a painfully awkward 40 seconds, suggesting that either the filmmaker has little respect for the all-important sound-image relationship or that this is not the final cut of the film with the proper sound mix. Schau-Larsen is under no obligation to make the film pretty, especially not at the expense of getting the message across, but instances such as this so early on invite a reading of the documentary as a strictly informative work that may only be suited for the small screen and classrooms. The subtle, dynamic character balancing and nuanced emotion may be all that distinguishes it as cinema, but that is often sufficient.
Sam Littman is a graduate student in the MA in Film Studies program at Columbia University.