Steve Rowell

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© 2020 Stéve Röwëll

Midstream at Twilight

An experimental documentary film about dark ecology
and the necessary death of an industry.

Midstream The midstream sector of the petroleum industry, involving the transportation (by pipeline, rail, barge, oil tanker or truck), storage, and wholesale marketing of crude or refined petroleum products.

Twilight A period or state of obscurity, ambiguity, or gradual decline.

Returned to Nature. Gateway Hill, Syncrude Canada Ltd. One of a handful of remediated land projects north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. The largest built structures on Earth are the retention dams that form massive, toxic lakes of tailings from tar sands mines. Overlooking this artificial sludgescape are replanted hills such as this, created by heaping piles of overburden from what used to be active mines, where, before the middle of the 20th century, ancient boreal forests stood for millions of years. Production still, March 2016.

Through the aerial perspective of a drone, this film traces the liminal infrastructure of oil pipelines between its source in the tar sands of Canada's boreal forest to a landscape of refineries in the US Midwest. From the bitumen mines of Northern Alberta to the city of Chicago this disembodied vantage point gives the viewer a sense of power through surveillance. — high above the vast prairies and across the rivers of North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. This landscape scanning is punctuated by ground-level sequences of the refinery where a toxic byproduct, petroleum coke, or petcoke as it is know in the industry, is sent by rail, barge, and truck across America to export abroad. After hovering above the corporate headquarters of Koch Industries, Inc., the largest dealer of petcoke in the US, the film concludes along the Pacific coast, at the port of Long Beach / Los Angeles, where petcoke is loaded onto tanker ships to be sent to markets in China where it is burned in power plants and converted into toxic plumes of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Following the northern jet stream, these pollutants return to North America into the airspace above California and the Pacific Northwest. The feedback loop of climate change continues to spin out of control.

When viewed, Midstream at Twilight functions as a form of contextual direct action and as such, invokes a corporate death curse against a fossil fuel industry in decline.

Premiered in August 2016 at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago.


Drone aerial footage combined with ground static and moving photography.
Single channel color video with 4.1 channel audio
20 minutes
HD 1080p

Sampled & incidental music:

Henry Purcell, Drum Processional, Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, 1695
performed by Benedict Hoffnung/Stephen Cleobury/King's College Choir, Cambridge, UK

Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, Title Music from A Clockwork Orange, 1972
based on Henry Purcell, Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, 1695

Made possible by a grant from the Museum of Contemporary Photography and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Aerial dronecam perspective of the Flint Hills Resources MINNCAN oil pipeline as it cuts across the Mississippi River headwaters in northern Minnesota, between the White Earth and Leech Lake Indian Reservations. This pipeline carries upgraded bitumen from the tar sands in Alberta to the Flint Hills Pine Bend Oil Refinery near the Twin Cities, MN. Video still frame, February 2016.

An active Syncrude mine and tailings pond near Mildred Lake, Alberta. Production still, March 2016.

Interactive pipeline display at The Oil Sands Discovery Centre in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Production still, March 2016.