Wiebo’s War is far from over

By Sean Willett

As citizens of Calgary, we sometimes forget how much power the oil industry really has in Alberta. Director David York’s latest film, Wiebo’s War, allows us to see how deeply large corporations can influence the everyday lives of average citizens — and how sometimes, there may be little we can do to stop them.

The documentary focuses on Wiebo Ludwig, leader of a small religious community in northern Alberta and the prime suspect in a series of bombings on drilling equipment that occurred in the late nineties, as well as another incident that took place just last year. The film tells the story of religious devotion, criminal implications and one man’s struggle against the oil and gas industry.

The film raises some interesting questions about who is actually “right” in this situation. An ENERCAN oil well gas leak resulted in serious problems for Wiebo’s commune, such as poisoned water, dead livestock, and multiple gruesome miscarriages. But technically, ENERCAN’s practices and actions were all perfectly within existing legal standards. Because of this, Wiebo was forced to take matters into his own hands.

Wiebo is portrayed as a very well-spoken and grandfatherly figure, albeit a very stubborn one. The members of his commune don’t come across as mindless followers, but rather willing members of a collective community. York remarks that “it’s very easy to portray them as a large extended family, because that’s what they are.”

Wiebo and his family are what York calls “fundamentally religious, rather than fundamentalist.” As naturally follows, almost everything they do is tied to their Christian faith. This caused York, an atheist, some difficulties while making the film.

“That was a major obstacle,” says York. “They didn’t believe that an atheist could really understand in his or her gut what their story meant.”

Despite this, York has managed to present Wiebo’s way of life in a way that makes it easy for the viewer to identify with and even admire him and his people, regardless of their religious views.

As a film, Wiebo’s War succeeds in setting a disquieting, despondent tone. Its subtle, understated score, paired with haunting shots of flaming oil wells and frozen fields, serve to emphasize how isolated the members of Wiebo’s compound really are, both geographically and socially. Particularly poignant scenes are created as York layers one of Wiebo’s many eloquent and thoughtful orations over shots of his family and property. These segments emphasize Wiebo’s role as a father figure and a protector.

However, this film far from exonerates Ludwig — York is careful to show us both his noble and less honourable sides. York aims to “tell the story fairly and let the audience come to their own judgements,” not vilifying him like the media has done, while simultaneously making sure not to cast him as a heroic figure. The director seeks to ask questions with this film, not answer them, and in this way, he has succeeded.

This isn’t exactly a film with a happy ending. Despite all of Wiebo’s protests, despite all of the media attention surrounding his situation, the gas well is still there — and more are being built. Sure, all of it is legal, but at what point do we as a society have to put our foot down? Can we just stand by as these mega-corporations threaten the well-being of rural Canadians? In a time of social and economic unrest, David York has created a film that raises some very real and difficult questions that are sure to open dialogue about the direction in which our society is headed.

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