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Wiebo Ludwig is shown is a scene from the film "Wiebo's War." (Vicenzo Pietrpaolo/Vicenzo Pietrpaolo)
Wiebo Ludwig is shown is a scene from the film "Wiebo's War." (Vicenzo Pietrpaolo/Vicenzo Pietrpaolo)

Leah McLaren

Wiebo's War: Looking at terrorism as a microcosm Add to ...

This week, I kept getting messages from friends inviting me to click a link to see the Osama shoot-down video. "U.S. government footage leaked by Wikileaks," the missives promised. "Censored by the Obama administration, a must-watch!"

Naturally I clicked, and was sucked into a viral maze of pornography and mail-order pharmaceuticals - serves me right for my morbid fascination. But I am not alone. Thousands of ultra-patriotic Americans who celebrated Bin Laden's death in the streets, chanting "USA," as if a single revenge killing was evidence of justice done. One gets the sense they'd happily tie his body to the back of their Ford Escalades and drag it through the streets if they could.

More columns by Leah McLaren

While President Barack Obama seems happy to bask in the glow of his new role of Fearless Leader, he is hesitant to gloat. The U.S. government has not yet released photographic evidence of their brutal deed because they are worried about the violence such an image could incite. And they are right to worry: Violence might demoralize the enemy, but it also strengthens them. Feeling attacked creates unity and hardens beliefs, whatever side you happen to be on.

It seems fitting, then, that in this bloody week of revenge masquerading as justice, Toronto's Hot Docs festival should feature the premiere of David York's documentary Wiebo's War, a film that offers a new perspective on the story of Wiebo Ludwig, Canada's own religious extremist and convicted terrorist.

As a charismatic autocrat and religious fanatic at odds with the North American oil and gas industry, Ludwig has a surprising amount in common with some terrorists and despots the West finds itself at odds with today.

Indeed, his story serves as a microcosmic example of the way religious fanaticism and apocalyptic paranoia is strengthened - rather than weakened - by outside persecution. "Irresistible force meets immovable object," is how York characterizes the stand-off between Ludwig's family and the oil and gas industry, which started 20 years ago and continues (albeit in a much-diffused way) to this day.



York and his crew spent roughly 100 days on the Ludwig farm, interviewing family members and reflecting on the events of that have taken place since they moved to the Trickle Creek Compound in Peace River, Alta., in the late eighties. "We came like refugees, a ragged bunch," Ludwig explains in one of his familiar droning sermons. "We wanted to be alone."

Instead of solitude, the family ended up with a gas flare several hundred feet from their house, and eventually, a full blown war, complete with casualties in the form of miscarried babies, dead livestock and a teenaged joy rider mysteriously shot and killed on their property. Like the U.S.'s so-called "war on terror," the Ludwig family's battle was one that only exacerbated and cemented the fundamentalism that existed in their hearts in the first place. In many ways, the documentary can be seen as a kind of sympathetic portrait of how a homegrown terrorist group is born.

York describes the family's struggle with oil and gas as a strange confluence of factors. "If they hadn't selected that particular place to build their new Jerusalem and if they hadn't seen themselves in post-apocalyptic terms, I'm not sure any of it would have played out so violently," he told me in an interview. "But the fact is, our beliefs and our actions are all formed by our world view and Wiebo's is very particular one."

While York admits he went into the project with a vague perception of the family as "a creepy, possibly polygamous religious cult in which the women wear headscarves," he came out the other end with a revised perspective of Wiebo Ludwig as a King Lear-type figure, who is flawed and narcissistic but, ultimately, "more sinned against than sinning."

York's documentary is not an attempt at balanced journalism. Apart from a few angry confrontations, there are no interviews with the faceless oil industry enemies or the angry townspeople who continue to ostracize the Ludwigs for their refusal to come clean about what exactly happened on the compound the night teen Karmen Willis was shot and killed. Instead, York offers an intimate portrait of a family whose fundamentalist religious beliefs have been cemented by an uncaring industrial monolith.

The real question, when it comes to dealing with religious fundamentalists and convicted terrorists, of course, is when does tolerance slide into knee-jerk moral relativism? On this front, York lets his subjects off easy.

Despite this sympathetic treatment, the Ludwigs are almost impossible to like (their sniggering coyness about Wiebo's acts of an eco-terrorism are particularly revolting), but in a week when moral righteousness is running high on all sides of the political spectrum, it's refreshing to be made to think, rather than simply emote.

As York points out of the Ludwigs, "Their values are different from our values, but that doesn't mean we don't have a responsibility to look at their story in an open-minded way."

Wiebo's War screens Saturday at 7 p.m. at Toronto's Regent Cinema, followed by a Q&A with David York.

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