Hot Docs, North America's biggest documentary film festival, kicks off its 2011 run on April 28 in Toronto. Jam-packed with documentaries running through May 8, Moviefone Canada will be there from start to finish, offering up looks at some of the festival's noted films.
How much do you know about Wiebo Ludwig? If you're like me –- not much.
Here's some basics: Wiebo and his family live near the gas-rich Peace Valley region of Northern Alberta. His compound holds several families who live off the land and practice a strict religious regiment. He has a big, bushy beard. Pictures of Wiebo Ludwig have been seen in magazines, newspapers, and even on international news broadcasts due to his association with bombings and sabotage related to the oil and gas industry. Some call him an eco-hero, others a terrorist.
Other than a few curious go-getters who have actually dug into the stories of the reverend and his cult-leader status, most people have branded him a religious lunatic or zealot, and left it at that -- but as 'Wiebo's War' shows, that might not be the case.
Enter director David York.
This Toronto-based filmmaker took the last couple of years to film the family, making his way to gas country in hopes of discovering the real goods on Wiebo and his beef with Big Oil. The tale he tells does what any great doc should do: it brings humanity to a cold and misunderstood set of headlines. Watch 'Wiebo's War' and it won't be so easy to simply label him as an eco-terrorist, or a patriarchal nut job who rules his roost with the word of God.
If there were a script for this doc, it would read something like 'Lord of the Rings.' Like the hobbits, these happy, relatively gentle people farm, pray and sustain themselves with the gifts that God left for them on their Trickle Creek compound. Enter an orc-like gas industry that stakes out the region in search of untapped resources, jobs for the thousands of residents nearby, and big money for its coffers. The land goes sour and the battle begins.
It seems Wiebo and his salt-of-the-Earth crew aren't all churning butter and raising roofs. Long before York starts filming, the Ludwigs are documenting the strange and sorrowful goings-on with their own video cameras. Twenty years of personal footage mixed with updated reflections captures the heartbreaking downfall of their livelihood. Alleged hydrogen sulphide leaks in the region make short work of their livestock, leave much of the family sick and produce a series of stillborn children. [Ed. Note: It's only fair to warn viewers of the graphic scenes that tell this part of the story. The images portrayed are sudden and without prompting.]
It's easy to get on-side with the family as their tale of hardship unfolds, but when things start blowing up, it gets sketchy. A series of gas-line bombings and protests at industrial well sites help to spur on several massive RCMP investigations of their compound. Surely the hundreds of reported incidents can't all be the work of the Trickle Creek gang, but the smirks on their faces and snide comments in this doc all but confirm some involvement.
Meanwhile, the oil companies use money, the law and a bulldozer mentality to stifle the outcry of the Ludwig clan. The tipping point of 'Wiebo's War' comes when York looks into the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of a 16-year-old girl on the family property. Depending on your interpretation of the story told in this chapter, these scenes may be enough for you to hold personal court on the Ludwigs, sentence them to life and throw away the key. But put all the facts, maybes and alleged behavior of both Big Oil and the Trickle Creek clan into a bowl and see what you come up with.
'Wiebo's War' asks you to consider the money at stake, the scourge of Big Oil, and how you might react if your family was being threatened and no one was there to assist you. You will be surprised how many questions are left unanswered. A must-see at this year's Hot Docs.
Saturday, April 30 – 7PM – Isabel Bader Theatre
Tuesday, May 3 – 7:15PM – TIFF Bell Lightbox 4
Saturday, May 7 – 7PM – The Regent
For complete schedule and movie listings, visit the Hot Docs website.