Paradise or iIlusion? –Searching for a new life

Still from Limit is the Sky.| Photo courtesy of Julia Ivanova.

Big cash and a lavish lifestyle don’t always buy you happiness, as shown in Julia Ivanova’s new documentary Limit is the Sky. The Russian-Canadian filmmaker follows six young people in their search of a new life in Fort McMurray, the North Canadian oil-city of extreme richness and ruthless weather.

The documentary shows us the dreams and emotions of the fortune seekers, who one by one try to discover if they fit into the rough environment of Fort McMurray. Ivanova, who has a soft spot for people’s ordinary lives, decided together with producer Bonnie Thompson of the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada not to focus on the political aspects of the oil-city that is one of the most environmentally challenged areas of the world. “I want to show that some people have little choice but to work in this controversial place. I follow young and able Canadians, who fight very hard to find a place in the Canadian economy and are attracted to the fast cash that Fort McMurray promises,” says Ivanova.

The film starts with Max, a young Lebanese refugee who works as a barber. Raised with the idea that he should succeed on a material level, he optimistically starts looking for a job in the oil-business. While struggling to find a job, he slowly falls into a state of hopelessness as he discovers that his talent for art makes him a stranger among the ‘natural’ oil-workers. We see him in moments of loneliness and bitterness, dreaming of a better life. Mucharata, an ambitious Filipina, has more luck. She entered Canada as a nanny, but is now known around town for being ‘that short Filipina woman’ who drives one of the biggest trucks in the world. It seems that the town breaks you, or makes you, and there is no option in between.

“Fort McMurray has no pretence. People are very direct and admit they come there for the money. It is a place where people who don’t fit the mainstream, go,” says Ivanova. For people who are born in the city it is painful to see the disrespectful attitude of some strangers, who live a very self-centered life until they have enough money to leave again.


Ivanova and her team followed the immigrants from 2012 to 2016, which were turbulent years for the city. “In the first years, the city was booming,” she explains. “But suddenly, the oil prices dropped and a crisis loomed. No one was prepared and thousands of workers lost their jobs. People were asking ‘will I be next’? As if this was not enough, the big fire came. In 2016, a lot of people moved out, and Fort McMurray became an empty city.”

“It makes me think of the book One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, where, after a period of incredible boom, the decline comes to the imaginary town of Macondto and eventually nature takes back the land while erasing all signs of presence of man. We, people, are usually preoccupied with our self-centered desires, but when the economy or nature turns against us, the sky puts the limit on our dreams.” Ivanova lets an imaginary raven fly through the documentary, entering and disappearing during the various scenes. Raven is the cultural symbol of the northern Athabaskan tribes, who lived where the actual oil sands are located. In their mythology, Raven stands for the unknown and the complexity of nature. “I never saw so many ravens in one place as in Fort McMurray,” adds Ivanova. “Despite all the changes, Raven is always there and lives way longerthan humans. For me he symbolizes nature’s force throughout the documentary.”

Nowadays, most of the immigrants followed in the film left Fort McMurray’s testing grounds. Amid plummeting oil prices and destroying wild fires, they discovered that money should never stop you from pursuing happiness.


Limit is the Sky will be screened at Vancouver’s DOXA Festival on May 5th, 6.15 pm at Vancity Theatreand will be released online by the National Film Board (NFB) later in the spring.