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The Tar Sands

Year: 1977
Language: English
Runtime: 56 min
Director: Peter Pearson
Writer: Peter Rowe, Larry Pratt, Peter Pearson, Ralph Thomas
Cinematographer: Kenneth Gregg
Editor: Myrtle Virgo
Music: Eric Robertson
Cast: Kenneth Welsh, Kenneth Pogue, Mavor Moore
Production Company: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

The most notorious of the films in the CBC’s For the Record series, this “true fiction” portrays “real” characters (including Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed, played by Kenneth Welsh) and “fictional” characters (intended as composites of actual persons) in its dramatization of the negotiations surrounding the Athabaska Tar Sands.

The film’s creative attempt to represent the negotiations did not sit well with those depicted in it. Originally scheduled for release in the spring of 1977, it was finally shown (with a minimum of publicity) on September 12, 1977, preceded by a disclaimer emphasizing the film’s “fictional” nature. The attempt to avoid legal repercussions was futile; Lougheed immediately announced he was suing the CBC for defamation of character. (The suit was eventually settled out of court.)

Nevertheless, The Tar Sands was a courageous venture. Its sparse, almost anonymous style mixes ascertainable facts with scripted dialogue in a manner that raises important ethical issues – not least in its (characteristically Canadian) portrayal of Lougheed as the “little man” destroyed by a system he can never begin to understand.

By: Peter Morris

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