David York’s docu “Wiebo’s War” paints a complex and compelling picture of its subject, Wiebo Ludwig, the leader of a small Christian community in northern Canada who’s at odds, to say the least, with the local gas industry. Though pic’s impact is greatly diminished by a muddled chronology, the protag’s undeniable charisma and the unresolved question at the pic’s heart — is Ludwig responsible or not responsible for the attacks and bombings of gas installations near his home? — keep auds hooked. Fest and local play are assured.
In the 1980s, Ludwig and his brother in Christ, Richard Boonstra, moved with their families from Ontario to the plains of Alberta, some 500 miles north of Calgary, to live closer to the way God intended. The sons of Ludwig married the daughters of Boonstra, and the compound they built, Trickle Creek Farm, was designed to be self-sufficient in terms of food and energy.
At the time they settled there, they were unaware that their farm lay on one of Canada’s biggest gas fields, and that according to Canadian law, they are only the owners of some six inches of topsoil. When the energy companies started moving, their installations came under attack. Canadian authorities arrested Ludwig in 2001 on charges of domestic terrorism, and have remained suspicious ever since.
During filming, which started in late 2008 and continued through early 2010, the director was a guest at the isolated compound. The fact York and his crew were allowed to film there at all is apparently possible because the media-savvy Ludwig not only seems intent on telling his side of the story, but also because the 57-year-old Christian sees the prolonged presence of the atheist director as an opportunity to teach a lost soul about God’s greatness.
What should have been an intimate portrait of the charismatic leader on home turf takes a thriller-like turn when, only a week into filming, a new attack is reported some 10 miles down the road, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police turn up on Ludwig’s doorstep to question him.
As becomes clear in a frustratingly piecemeal manner, as York and editor Nick Hector jump back and forth in time, the Ludwigs and Boonstras suffer immensely from the invasion of the energy companies, which might go some way to explain Ludwig’s possible involvement in some of these attacks. A 2010 house search is rather awkwardly used as a framing device, with York randomly cataloguing the attacks that have been attributed to Ludwig, often without hard evidence.
After the first gas well went into use, one of the women on the farm miscarried, and cattle suddenly miscarried or died. Their own water wells also became contaminated. One cannot but feel a measure of sympathy for these underdogs who want to live their life in peace in the way they see fit, only to become surrounded by a danger much larger than the big-city way of life they were trying to escape.
The energy corporations and law enforcers are definitely the baddies here, and the eponymous protag, whether by design or not, comes across as an understandably angered paterfamilias fighting to protect his family and property rather than a religious loon (though some acts, such as presenting the clan’s stillborn children to his family and the camera, might be hard to stomach for some auds). It is Ludwig’s charisma that ensures the docu is compelling throughout.
Besides the problematic editing, pic is technically OK.