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movie review

Wiebo Ludwig in a scene from the documentary "Wiebo's War"

Wiebo Ludwig may be one of the most difficult documentary subjects to come to grips with, for a highly nuanced reason.

It's not that he's evasive in Wiebo's War, a documentary which tries to see Ludwig's troubles with oil and gas companies near his family farm in Alberta's Peace River region from his point of view.

Quite the contrary. Even though he questions director David York's ability to understand him in an early scene in the film, Ludwig and his extended family make themselves (along with their revealing home movies) readily available to the cameras. The ascetic Christian family, which came to rural Alberta to escape modern society, even prays for the documentary during grace before a meal. The director is given closer access than most any family would grant a documentary filmmaker. So, that's not the problem.

And it's not the case that Ludwig seems out to trick the filmmakers, regarding the years he has been in the news on suspicion of sabotaging toxic oil and gas wells in the area. He almost seems uninterested in whether anyone watching Wiebo's War believes he is guilty of the eco-terrorist accusations against him.

No, the real difficulty for York – in fact, for the whole premise of Wiebo's War, which is co-produced by the National Film Board of Canada– is that Ludwig and his grown children see their story as something outsiders can never fully understand.

"Because a lot of this is spiritual and unseen. It cannot be put on a picture," says the aging, bearded Ludwig in an early scene.

York is sitting in one of the farm's houses, with Ludwig and some of the men. Most are similarly bearded, emulating the family patriarch's prophetic bearing. York is trying to convince them to participate in the film.

"And the other thing is, if you're an atheist," Ludwig continues, "you can't possibly even get in touch with it [the true picture] because you're living in terrible darkness. And until your eyes are open and you give yourself [to faith] you can't begin to understand who we are."

However, it quickly becomes clear that these aren't cultish words. Regardless of religion, it would be difficult for anyone to imagine what it's like to live through the travails this family community has endured since the late 1980s when they settled on the farmland, which happens to be above one of the largest fields of natural gas in North America.

The extended family has been ostracized by the local community. (Ludwig's three oldest sons married the daughters of another family, with multiple generations now living together on the self-sustaining farm.) Some of their livestock died and the family suffered a series of miscarriages, as the toxic, gas-burning wells were erected nearby. One home movie even shows images of one of their stillborn children.

The chronology of events gets jumbled in the film, in favour of the overall thrust of the family story: They fought against the wells. The accusations of sabotage flew. Their farm was searched by police. Ludwig has served 19 months in federal prison. And in one night that went horribly wrong, there was the unresolved death of a 16-year-old local girl, who was shot in what is described by the family as an incident in which rowdy teenagers drove onto the farm one night to frighten the Ludwigs.

And yet the Ludwigs are a family that has obviously suffered terribly and endured. They just want to exist peacefully on their land. It's impossible not to try to understand the family on their terms.

Still, it's difficult. The documentary shows Ludwig's strong clarity of thought, which nevertheless remains somewhat enigmatic to the listener. At one point, he describes it as kind of total calmness. For him, it's more than a conscious detachment from the events around him.

"It's a deeper thing than that. It's what psychologists might mock as denial or something. I don't. I see it as something much more integral.… My sense of responsibility is always not toward men, but toward God," he says.

Wiebo's War opens Friday in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto. It opened Wednesday in Winnipeg.

Wiebo's War

  • Directed by David York
  • Classification: NA