Hot Docs 2011: ‘Wiebo’s War’

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Wiebo’s War

Directed by David York

2011, Canada, 93 mins.

Calls to action might make fashionable documentaries, but by instead painting a portrait of moral ambiguity and ugly truths, director David York has given us a superior one. Wiebo Ludwig is a charismatic, if complicated, man. His campaign of sabotage against oil wells a decade ago saw him become celebrated as a folk hero and derided as a terrorist. The reclusive Christian community he leads, Trickle Creek, was mistrusted by its neighbours, and then hated after the still unsolved shooting death of a sixteen-year-old girl on the property. Finally, police suspect him in a renewed bombing campaign – which coincides with David York’s stay with the community – that Mr Ludwig curiously but calmly repudiates. The man is deliberate, deadly serious, and demands our attention.

York lived with Trickle Creek during his time filming. Much of his footage consists of interviews with Ludwig and his family, of their protests of nearby oil wells, and of the police raids on Trickle Creek in 2010.  Ludwig himself is cogent and intense – he is not cut from the same cloth as the raving religious leaders more commonly seen in documentary films. His family, too, is well-spoken. Their recalled grief at the death of their livestock and stillbirths and miscarriages of their children – for which they blame a nearby well leaking sour gas, or hydrogen sulphide – is palpable. The remainder of the footage is archival, either from news sources (covering the previous sabotage campaign) or family home movies from Trickle Creek.

The mix is guided by occasional narration from York, but the film still feels a bit murky – we are never really sure what the truth is, but we are told Wiebo Ludwig’s version of the truth, and therein lies the documentary’s appeal. This is not a film to celebrate or condemn the man, but to let him speak on his own terms. It is left to the audience to celebrate or condemn Wiebo Ludwig – and I suspect that many will have mixed feelings about the man.

Wiebo’s War is by no means a perfect documentary. Some pieces of the film feel long and unnecessary. Focus is sometimes muddled. Some of Mr Ludwig’s health and safety criticisms of the oil and gas industry feel like they need more comment – by doctors, scientists, or someone from the oil and gas industry. However, leaving those small criticisms aside, Wiebo’s War is a genuinely good documentary well worth our attention and respect.

Dave Robson

Hot Docs runs April 28 – May 8th. Visit the official website for the festival.

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