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Circle of Steel delves into tumultuous world of Alberta oilfield

Calgary engineer-turned-filmmaker brings feature film debut to Whistler Film Festival

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Gillian McKercher has had an unusual career trajectory.

The Calgary resident first earned a BSc in engineering then worked in the oil and gas industry for years before she was laid off and began to pursue her true passion as a filmmaker.

"The transition was challenging," she says. "It was letting go of—now I realize—these indoctrinated values about what it means to have a more traditional job and getting a paycheque every two weeks and having benefits."

But those two contradictory worlds collide in her debut feature film, Circle of Steel, set to screen at the Whistler Film Festival on Nov. 29 and 30. With a plot gleaned from her own experiences, as well as those of her former coworkers, the film focuses on Asian-Canadian engineer, Wendy Fong, as she delves into her job in the Alberta oilfields.

"In spite of it being a story connected to the political or social landscape, I wanted it to be a story about workers," McKercher says. "In making it a story about workers, the environment on the ground, that everyday grind, it's become much more relatable to everybody. I hope I open people's eyes that these are just people. It's told in an oil and gas setting, but it's applicable to any resource (industry)."

With long hours—sometimes filled with mundane tasks—low job security, and crazy personalities, the oil patch offered a Mad Men-esque scene, she adds. "I knew I wanted to make this film for at least three years. When I started my full-time job I was working on a huge, $200-million project. There was a lot of instability. It was a huge company where people were getting hired and fired. That was when the crash happened and our project got cancelled. I witnessed so much tumultuous action," she says.

After she was laid off, McKercher set to work learning how to translate the skills she learned creating short films and music videos into a feature-length production. She wrote a "super fast" draft after making it to the second round of the Sundance Institute Screenwriting Lab, for one.

"It was like writing draft after draft," she says. "Gary Burns, my producer and business partner, came on to give feedback."

After that, a mostly local crew—many also working on a feature for the first time—came together to shoot the production in just 16 days. "It was almost a year ago to the day," McKercher says. "I'm so excited. This is the first film, not just for myself, but for a lot of my collaborators and people I want to continue making films with. This is our first feature and our first time trying to make something with the Canadian festival circuit in mind. It's crazy we got this film out and we're showing it in less than a year."

Already, it has earned hometown approval, winning Audience Favourite, Alberta Feature at the Calgary International Film Festival. "I'm scared every single screening," McKercher says. "I'm afraid people will either project political rancor on it or I'm worried people will think I'm being anti-oil in a Calgary setting."

The goal, after all, was not to make the film political. "It's pro-worker," she says. "I hope that regardless of your background, you come see it."

Circle of Steel screens at the Whistler Film Festival on Thursday, Nov. 29 at Village 8 Cinemas at 6:30 p.m. and on Friday, Nov. 30, at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre at 3:30 p.m.

For more visit whistlerfilmfestival.com.

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