How Far Would You Go?

Wiebo’s War ★★★★
(Canada, 93 min.)
Written and directed by David York
It’s been a brave year for Canadian filmmakers. We first saw The Whistleblower take on the United Nations with its shocking exposé of a sex-trafficking operation involving UN peacekeepers, as well as the organization’s own cover-up when employee Kathy Bolkovac tried to make things right. Now comes David York’s documentary Wiebo’s War, which also brings a shocking story to the screen. Much like The Whistleblower, Wiebo’s War is laudable for its conviction to tell truth. It too is a fearless and important film: Wiebo’s War is one of those movies from which it would be difficult not to leave the theatre deeply affected and hungry for change. 

Wiebo’s War tells of Alberta farmer Wiebo Ludwig, who moved to the province from Ontario in search of a quiet life. A Christian fundamentalist, Wiebo leads a group of similarly faithful families on their Alberta compound Trickle Creek, a co-op of sorts that is far removed from the rest of society, but it allows Wiebo and his family to live a peaceful and self-sustaining lifestyle. That is until Big Oil discovered that Trickle Creek sat atop one of the richest untapped reserves of sour gas in North America.

Director David York frames the film by presenting struggles of Trickle Creek in winter 2010. As the film opens, hoards of RCMP officers surround the compound and a voice on the radio describes Wiebo as an extremist and an eco-terrorist. To explain the situation in which Wiebo finds himself today, York flashes back to the initial problems at Trickle Creek back in the 1990’s. Allowing Wiebo and his family members to speak for themselves, the film presents testimony and original footage detailing their long struggle.
As Wiebo tells York, the oil companies set up shop in close proximity to his family’s camp. (The company’s initial plan was to build a well on the Ludwig farm.) Despite pleas for government intervention, the plans went ahead since Canadian laws state that a person owns only the top six inches of soil on their property – everything else is government property that can be sold, mined, and tapped as the state so pleases. Not long after the sour gas installation began pillaging the resources underneath Trickle Creek, Wiebo’s family members noticed a high number of livestock were having miscarriages. Soon, Wiebo’s wife miscarries too, though advice from her doctors leads them to accept that the tragedy was simply related to her age. (She was in her forties at the time). However, as more animals die and the family experiences large outbreaks of sickness and physical irritation, it becomes obvious that the problems stem from pollution produced by the sour gas well. Wiebo and his family members try to stop the activity civilly, but they are met only with bureaucratic indifference and red tape.

As York tells the audience, though, the state finally took an interest in Wiebo’s case when a series of gas installations throughout the region were victim to vandalism and bombings. After the RCMP question Wiebo and fail to connect him with the bombings, Wiebo’s War shows the problem escalate on both sides of the story. Footage shows that the water in the taps of Trickle Creek is so polluted it combusts. Worse, the family experience four more miscarriages or stillbirths. (The footage of which is quite unsettling.) Against the side of Big Oil, Wiebo’s family tries to prevent future installations via roadblocks and pleas for intervention. Moreover, the bombings at regional gas wells continue: Wiebo remains a suspect, though no evidence connects him to the bombings.

The film, however, takes a troubling turn in its final act. The film culminates with the story that brought public attention to the Trickle Creek case – the mysterious shooting death of sixteen year-old Karman Willis on Wiebo’s property. The family members recall to York the fateful night on which a group of teenagers from a nearby township came joyriding onto the family property. It was a rowdy group, the family says, and one that made repeat visits throughout the night. The circumstances of the girl’s death remain unclear, though Wiebo claims that he first learned of her death through a telephone call with a friend.

The conditions of the incident, as well as past suspicions, lead the police to investigate Wiebo as the shooter. He is never charged, but Karman’s death puts a disquieting perspective on his cause. Wiebo’s testimony almost pits the girl as collateral damage, or perhaps an emotional element that obscures the ongoing issue of his family’s plight. Moreover, the looming suspicion of Wiebo by the townspeople leaves the family at Trickle Creek alone in their battle to save their land and themselves.

Most impressively, the film inclines one to side with Wiebo even while the footage could potentially lead one to believe that he committed these crimes. The playful nature of Wiebo’s charismatic testimony, as well as his elusive but not unknowing opinions of the bombings, give an object perspective of the film’s colourful subject – the film allows one to observe Wiebo from the perspectives of both guilt and innocence. Moreover, the film does not hide the fact that Wiebo was actually charged and convicted for five counts of vandalism and other crimes related to the combings.

What makes Wiebo’s War so compelling is York’s framing of his subject: at no point does it seem to matter whether Wiebo is actually responsible for these crimes. Wiebo denies any involvement, but he tells the camera that he supports the actions morally, for somebody needs to take a stand when the oil companies are blatantly victimizing civilians. Wiebo’s War does not seek to justify the actions that Wiebo allegedly took; rather, it interrogates a system that looks at the crimes committed against the residents of Trickle Creek and compares them to the crimes committed against the oil company. As the footage suggests, the RCMP and the Alberta courts ultimately decide that the property of the oil company is more valuable than the lives and well-being of Wiebo’s family.

David York and his producers should be commended for their fair and meticulous handling of such a sensitive story. Particularly when the film engages with Karman’s death could the debate have swung fatally to either side, yet York’s delicate assemblage of the story preserves the severity of the tragedy, but also respects Wiebo’s position on the matter. Wiebo’s War will surely incense viewers because it focuses not on the financial or environmental repercussions of the gas beds, but primarily on the personal elements of Wiebo’s war. The tale of the film is clearly a human rights issue, and one that is being ignored for the sake of convenience. Wiebo’s War is a brave and compelling documentary – and one that moviegoers must see and discuss! 

 You can see/discuss Wiebo's War when it screens:
in Ottawa at The Mayfair Oct 15, 16, & 18. (David York will do a Q&A on the 15th)
October 19 at the Winnipeg Film Group Cinematheque
October 21 at the Vancity Theatre, Vancouver
October 21 at the Plaza Theatre, Calgary
October 21 at the Metro Cinema, Edmonton (David York, Bonnie Thompson and Wiebo Ludwig in attendance on October 22)
October 21 at The Royal, Toronto (David York in attendance on October 21)

Check local listings for showtimes in other locations. 

Photos copyright Vincenzo Pietropaolo. Courtesy The National Film Board of Canada