Documentary follows millennials in Fort McMurray

Limit is the Sky screens at DOXA Festival

Parallels and paradoxes abound in a place like Fort McMurray, pitting personal greed against the environment or a short-term fix versus a long-term plan.

Those are the types of conversations explored in Limit is the Sky, a film by Vancouver’s Julia Ivanova that screens at the DOXA Festival on May 5.

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Shot between 2012 and 2015, the film follows six millennials from across the world who descend upon the northern Alberta town in search of the same thing: financial freedom and lots of it.

“Each of their stories is different,” Ivanova said. “For me, this film is not a story about Fort McMurray. This is a fable and Fort McMurray is a metaphor for our world, in that regardless of how well things are going in the present moment, the situation can change at any time.”  

The six characters chronicled are all under the age of 35 and come from distinctly different locales: the Philippines, Sudan, Lebanon and the U.S. A pair of Canadians — one from Edmonton and the other from the Maritimes — are also included in the National Film Board (NFB) piece.

That cross section of cultures was deliberately selected on Ivanova’s part, and the manner in which she began connecting with her stars was nothing short of brilliant. A newcomer to Fort Mac and just a few years shy of 50 at the time, Ivanova set up fake profiles on a dating site to net her catch.

“My logic was saying, ‘I’m almost 50 and I want to make a film about young people in Fort McMurray, so how do I find interesting, young people?’” she said. “I needed to have access to the numbers. In order to have access to those numbers I had to be a 20-something.”

Ivanova found her main character — a 23-year-old Lebanese barber named Max — through the site and the rest by word of mouth. The resulting cast perfectly encapsulates the personalities and caricatures attracted to the city: idealism, greed, delusion and altruism.  

The first vision for the documentary would have seen filming directly in the oil patch, but not a single site supervisor allowed Ivanova into those locations. As such, the film became personality driven. To that end, Ivanova found two predominant mindsets in Fort McMurray: those who believe they’ll work for two years, cash out and leave, and others who feel they have no choice but to work in the oil sands forever.

“It felt like the Wild West, it was more like an outpost,” Ivanova said. “The majority of young men who were going there, it was just a place to make money and then go home.”

Ivanova had wrapped up shooting and was ready to deliver the film to the NFB when the wildfires broke out on May 1, 2016. The film’s original ending was steeped in metaphors and included ravens circling a garbage dump devoid of human life, picking up the scraps and continuing on. Reaction to the fires was used instead to bookend the film.

“In the film I show that our dreams can be kind of delusional and unnecessary, that we want things we’re not entitled to,” Ivanova said. “We can be delusional in the scale of our dreams, and in order to achieve these dreams we exploit nature to the maximum. At some point nature, or the sky in this case, will put a cap on our dreams.” 

Limit in the Sky will be screened at 6:15 p.m. on May 5 at the Vancity Theatre. Details at


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