Filmmaker Dylan Rhys Howard and writer Omar Mouallem thought they had a slam-dunk on their hands; a 20-minute documentary about the mental-health crisis affecting Alberta’s oil and gas workers.
They made a pitch to Telus Storyhive — which helps fund up-and-coming filmmakers in Alberta and British Columbia. And, they were… rejected.
But, while their first pitch missed the target, it created a buzz, and within a few weeks Howard was sitting with CBC executives who were enthusiastic about the idea. In fact, with a running time at almost an hour long, the duo were able to expand on their idea; a sympathetic look at the mental-health challenges faced by men working in Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie. Digging in the Dirt is anything but a political film; it’s about the human toll that’s a result of performing dangerous labour in isolated areas. It’s about what happens to men who live in camps for three weeks straight. It’s about an industry so filled with machismo, that many are hesitant to ask for help. And, sadly, takes a personal look at those who took their own lives, weighed down by depression, anxiety and drugs.
The documentary premieres this Saturday (Sept. 14) on CBC. For those of you who like to stream, CBC has made it available here.
In 2017, Mouallem, a former member of Avenue’s editorial team and an alumnus of our Top 40 Under 40, wrote a piece for Buzzfeed on the mental-health crisis in Alberta’s oil sands, examining why the trades have a suicide rate higher than any other professional group.
Howard read it.
“It was the most compassionate take on the oil patch that I’d ever seen,” he says. Meanwhile, Mouallem was impressed by a short film, Peak Oil, that Howard had made that tackled the subject of mental health in the oil patch.
“We had both noticed the same things, we just told the story in different ways,” says Mouallem.
Digging in the Dirt features interviews with workers who have struggled with addiction and depression. It discusses how isolated men can feel in the camps, and how disconnected they can become from families and society as a whole.
“It really dovetails on the bigger idea that men still see that they are meant to be the providers,” says Howard. “But when does the responsibility become sacrifice?”
The stories make the issues relatable to a wider audience.
“To me, the best way to talk about a social issue is with a cohesive story and a concrete environment,” says Mouallem. “And there is no more hyper-masculine environment that the oil-sands camp.”
And, while both are aware that their film may be put on a pedestal by pro- and anti-oil sands camps, the intention of the film is anything but a debate on whether we should be drilling or not. Since the film is being aired during the first week of the election campaign, and natural-resource extraction is a hot-button election topic, there’s no doubt going to be attempts to politicize the work. But those efforts won’t come from the filmmakers themselves.
“The world doesn’t need another political film about the oil sands,” says Howard.
“To make it political discredits the work,” says Mouallem.