David York’s acclaimed feature film explores one man’s controversial battle against gas development
Weibo Ludwig, head of a fundamentalist Christian commune in rural Alberta, isn’t the kind of person the left usually supports, and we may not endorse his tactics. But his story shows the determination of the fossil fuel industry and its mass media allies to isolate and demonize ordinary people who resist their poisonous expansion. The film described in this announcement from Canada’s National Film Board deserves a wide audience.
After winning rave reviews at film festivals, David York’s powerful feature documentary Wiebo’s War plays Canadian theatres starting October 14.
Wiebo’s War tells the story of a man’s relentless struggle to protect his land and his family’s well-being in the face of gas industry interests.
The problems of Wiebo Ludwig and his family began when they discovered that their farm lay on top of one of the largest undeveloped fields of natural gas on the continent. Wells were drilled in close proximity to their Alberta home despite the family’s concerns over their potentially harmful impact. Soon after, livestock began to die, and the Ludwig family started experiencing health problems, including a series of miscarriages. After five years of being ignored by the oil and gas industry, and while others chose to accept the buyout offers that came their way, Ludwig decided to fight for his land and his family’s survival.
A campaign of barricaded roads and blown-up wells eventually resulted in Wiebo Ludwig’s arrest and conviction. And when a 16-year-old girl was fatally shot on the family farm in 1999, this unsolved tragedy thrust Ludwig’s fight with the industry further into the media spotlight. Almost a decade later, in an incident seemingly unrelated to Ludwig, a pipeline explodes in nearby BC, and the issues with the oil and gas industry remain unresolved.
This feature documentary by filmmaker David York is a nuanced portrait of a man driven to extremes, vilified by the media and alienated from his community. It raises the unsettling question: How far would you go to defend your family and your land?
Wiebo’s War theatrical engagement begins:
- Ottawa, October 14 at the Mayfair Theatre (David York in attendance on October 14 and 15)
- Winnipeg, October 19 at the Film Group Cinematheque
- Vancouver, October 21 at the Vancity Theatre
- Calgary, October 21 at the Plaza Theatre
- Edmonton, October 21 at the Metro Cinema (David York, Bonnie Thompson and Wiebo Ludwig in attendance on October 22)
- Toronto, October 21 at The Royal (David York in attendance on October 21)
Wiebo’s War is a co-production of 52 Media Inc. (David York, producer) and the National Film Board of Canada (Bonnie Thompson, producer). The film had its North American premiere last spring at Hot Docs, where it was praised by critics. Variety wrote that Wiebo’s War “paints a complex and compelling picture of its subject,” while Exclaim! called Ludwig “one of the most fascinating Canadian characters of the last 20 years.”
NOW Magazine stated that the film “has everything a great doc needs: a superb story that rewrites the script the media wrote about Ludwig at the time, a fascinating character in Ludwig himself, and terrific footage shot by his family as they encountered federal authorities and gas company executives.”
An Interview with David York, Director of Wiebo’s War
What compelled you to make a film about Reverend Wiebo Ludwig?
I remember watching news coverage of Wiebo Ludwig’s 2001 trial. He was a striking, bearded Old Testament kind of figure, regularly giving impromptu press conferences, almost like sermons, on the courthouse steps. Intrigued, I later picked up Saboteurs, Andrew Nikiforuk’s excellent book about Wiebo Ludwig. Upon reading it, I was struck by the outrageous acts of the oil and gas industry and how landowners like Wiebo are offered no help from the industry or the government against the toxic side-effects of the drilling. It also gave me insight into how threatened and alone he and his family felt.
Then in 2007 or so, there was a news story in which Wiebo Ludwig was quoted as calling for a Truth Commission; he said that if the oil and gas companies told the truth and held themselves accountable for their actions, he would consider being honest about his part in the sabotage. It sounded as though he was ready to open up, so I wrote him a letter asking if I could come up to the farm for a visit.
How were you able to gain the trust of Wiebo Ludwig and his community? After his previous experiences with the media and the RCMP, they must have been deeply suspicious of your motives.
Wiebo and his community were very gracious, but also very tough. They invited me to visit them at the farm and put me up for a few days. They were very keen to show me all that they’ve achieved—the family is almost completely self-sufficient with its solar and wind energy and food production. Their farm is impressive. I had long discussions with the family at their communal meals. For the first few visits, they thought that I was either an undercover police officer, or that I might betray what I learned from them to the police.
Wiebo is such a strong character, I had very intense conversations with him over three or four visits in the year it took me to obtain access. He and his family interrogated me about my motives, ethics and religious views. They even tossed me out a few times, but I was honest with them and very persistent. Their access process was: Who is this guy really? And what they were primarily interested in was my soul. They are a deeply Christian community—could they let an atheist tell their story?
It took three visits to gain enough of the family’s confidence to even begin filming. On one of these early visits, during a family dinner, Wiebo told me about an African tribe he’d heard of. Whenever a stranger approached their territory, the chief would go out to the village’s boundary and the two men would squeeze each other’s scrotum, looking into the other’s eyes. It was an exercise in trust, knowing that each had the capacity to cause the other extreme pain. I wish I’d been shooting at the time, because even though everyone was laughing, it was clear that Wiebo would have relished going out into the -30.C night with me, knee-deep in the snow, to test me out.
Reverend Ludwig is the leader of a closed fundamentalist Christian commune in northern Alberta. You’re an atheist from Toronto. How did you manage to bridge this divide?
This was an ongoing issue throughout filming. The thing Wiebo was most concerned about was how an atheist like me could truly understand their lives or their deeper struggles with the oil and gas business and the secular world. Every day they tried to show me evidence of God’s presence all around me and counsel me in religious matters. It’s a mark of the family’s generosity that they allowed me to make the film despite their reservations about these profound differences.
We also had to be respectful of their worldview. Generally when you make a documentary, you have to get releases from your subjects and Errors and Omissions insurance, but in this case, one of the obstacles early on was that Wiebo and his family just don’t sign other people’s stupid pieces of paper. They just don’t. Instead, we shot a two-to-three-hour conversation between me and the family about what was involved in making a documentary, what I needed from them, what they could expect from me, what the pros were, what the downsides and risks were, and so on.
With this process, there was more informed consent than in any other piece of film or television that I’ve made. The raw footage of that scene is utterly fascinating. So there’s a paradox: they’re a Christian community, who most would view as fundamentalist, living in northern Alberta, in a way that is fairly cut off from the outside world, yet their approach to agreeing to do this film was more sophisticated and thought through than any in my professional experience over the past 15 years.
The questions [Wiebo] was asking me are central to documentary filmmaking itself. And on a pragmatic level, he wanted to meet everybody who was going to be involved in shaping the story.the director of photography, the editor, our producer from the National Film Board, Bonnie Thompson; he had serious conversations with them. He’s a very smart man: as much as he knows that documentary has an author, he also knows that there are other voices involved, and he wanted to get a measure of everyone involved as part of his process for agreeing to make the film.
What was it about this film that made you want to direct? You’ve been a producer for over 15 years, most recently for Air India 152, but this is your first film as a director.
I went up there knowing that this was a compelling story, and that I definitely wanted to make a documentary about it, but I hadn’t intended to be the director at first. But the conversations around getting access were so complicated and so based on the relationship that Wiebo and I had developed, it was pretty obvious that bringing in a new person to direct would have meant that they would have to start from scratch. I had always known that I wanted to direct at some point, but the timing and the project had to be right.
What surprised you the most about Wiebo Ludwig and his community?
When I was watching the news coverage, the reporters would just say, “The Ludwigs say there’s been a miscarriage,” or “Some livestock have died.” Then the oil and gas companies would say that there was no link between their activities and the events that may have occurred. The losses the Ludwigs had suffered seemed worrying, but not catastrophic.
But once I was allowed access to the family archives, I was astonished. They had thoroughly documented written and video accounts of a horrifying number of mass livestock die-offs. And it wasn’t one or two miscarriages that the women in the family endured, it was five.
And every spring when the snow and ice melt, the toxins that have collected leach out into their environment, causing every family member to get rashes on their hands, backs and legs.
The news coverage had always presented what seemed like both sides of the story, which led you to question whether or not these things had really happened, or how severe they were. Looking over their family records, video footage and photos, I really got to see the shocking extent of the damage that they had suffered at the hands of the oil and gas companies.
You are careful in the film to avoid making explicit judgments about Wiebo Ludwig . . .
Wiebo Ludwig is a powerful but complex character. He’s a charismatic, educated man who loves debate and high-end rhetorical dialogue. He and his family have achieved extraordinary things, both in terms of self-sufficiency and in raising and leading a healthy, functional and happy family. At the same time, he has been linked to some serious crimes— bombings and other acts of sabotage, and of course the unsolved death of 16-year-old Karman Willis on his property.
I want the audience to have the same experience as I did in making the film: to slowly discover the details of his life and struggles, and the complexities of his character, through his words and his body language, without being led to prejudge him. I think people are, and will always be, divided about him. In the end though, I think of Wiebo in King Lear’s words: “I am a man more sinned against than sinning.”