Hot Docs: David York on Wiebo's War, and Wiebo's War
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Hot Docs: David York on Wiebo’s War, and Wiebo’s War

Wiebo Ludwig and his family at their home on the Trickle Creek compound.

Wiebo Ludwig, the subject of David York’s excellent National Film Board–backed film Wiebo’s War, has been labelled a cult leader and an eco-terrorist by the Canadian media. Patriarch and spiritual leader of the Trickle Creek Christian compound in northern Alberta, Ludwig has attracted attention over the past two decades for his struggle against the oil and gas interests encroaching on his land.
For years, Wiebo has accused the industry of poisoning his family and his livestock, resulting in skin diseases, poor health, and even miscarriages. A broad, bearded, fiercely salt-of-the-earth type who holds steadfast to his belief that we’re living on the edge of biblical apocalypse, it’s kind of hard to imagine him walking down the red carpet for the premiere of Wiebo’s War at the Isabel Bader Theatre tomorrow night.

While Wiebo was all but confirmed to make it to Hot Docs for the premiere of York’s film, he backed out at the last minute—daunted, York suspects, by the prospect of being in a place too urban, too cosmopolitan, and too damned (everyone knows Hot Docs is an annual Babylon of excess and inequity). To be honest, we were a bit relieved. The idea of sitting in a room asking him questions seemed equally terrifying and exciting. But mostly terrifying.
All the same, we did have a chance to sit down with David York at the NFB yesterday to talk about his film and his unique perspective on Wiebo Ludwig. (Beware: spoilers ahead, as they say.)
Torontoist: It’s kind of a relief, actually, to only talk to you, without Wiebo in the room.
David York: It’s funny because on one hand, I really wanted him to be here. I shot, I think, 70 days, and was there for another 30 over the course of a few years. So I spent 100 nights under his roof and have been treated with incredible warmth and generosity. And I really like him, and I like his family.
Seems like there’s a “but” coming here…
Well the “but” is that he is, I don’t like the word “fundamentalist,” but it’s true. He’s a strong Christian. And I’m not. I’m an atheist. And that was always a problem, over the course of shooting. I probably have 100 conversations in the can that never made the film of Wiebo trying to explain religious matters to me and getting increasingly irritated with me. He says it’s impossible to be an atheist, that it’s impossible to deny the Lord and the Lord’s works. So you’re not an atheist, you’re in denial. That’s who I am to him. And if you’ve got a difference that profound with someone, you can have good times and interesting times, but you can never be close.

The film opens with this scene of Wiebo expressing his concern at letting you and your crew into his house, where you vow to make a fair, even-handed film. Was his reluctance more about how he’d be portrayed in the film, or about having non-believers under his roof?
Both. The questions he has about allowing an atheist to tell his story are profound, and they remain. But like anyone, he’s uncomfortable with the extent to which the film takes him to account for certain things, or leaves these questions open for the audience. I was scrupulous to not judge him, but also not to defend him personally. I wanted the audience to experience the same thing I did, which was to get to know him, and figure out if they’re with him or they’re against him.
It’s almost impressive that he can be so committed to his religion and to God, considering all the things that have happened to him and his family. Did you ever witness any wavering in his faith?
Well I think everyone has doubts, no matter how strong your convictions are, and whether they’re religious or ideological. And Wiebo’s as human as the next guy. As far as how those doubts were expressed, well he suspended participation in the film a couple of times. On one occasion he told me that he’d decided to pull the ladder up on the ark—and what he meant was that he didn’t see the point in being a religious person trying to talk to an outside world that is secular and is, in his view, damned. I give it a kind of light touch in the film, but he’s an apocalyptic Christian. He believes he’s witness and that he’s living in a period that’s the final struggle between good and evil.
How did you first approach Wiebo about making the film?
That’s real easy, because he’s spoken with so many media. It was simply a question of calling around to various media he’s talked to and asking for his address. So I wrote him a letter and said I wanted to make a documentary, and I asked if I could come up for a visit. It took eight months, over three or four visits.

Filmmaker David York.

The film is fairly even-handed and, as you say, you do hold him account for things. But it does seem hugely successful in chipping away at the “eco-terrorist” label which, the film suggests, has been applied rather unfairly. What was your take on Wiebo going into the project?
When I first met him, I bought into that cult stuff. You see the news pieces, and there’s this old-time prophet giving services on the courthouse steps, surrounded by women in headscarves. And the media coverage at the time portrayed it as this fundamentalist cult, with people tossing around references to Jim Jones. So I had all this baggage going into the early stages. But it was obvious from the beginning that that wasn’t the situation at all. They’re not polygamists. Their family bonds are very strong. The women, while they do wear headscarves as a way of acknowledging the rule of the man in the family, they’re not under the thumb. They’re open to speak their minds. A lot of those smears—you know “cult leader” and “eco-terrorist”—just didn’t pass the sniff test.
As far as “eco-terrorist,” what I didn’t realize going in is that before they began with acts of sabotage or direct action, they’d gone through five years of trying to work with regulators and politicians and media to get the gas industry to back away from them. It was only after five years of being vilified and ignored and run down as cranks that they took matters into their own hands.
There’s some very confrontational imagery in the film—I’m thinking here specifically about the scene with the stillborn child. Is there ever any question that you’re going to include this material? Do you struggle with it?
For sure. If you’re trying to tell a story of a series of events that had a serious, emotional impact on people, the imperative to use the material outweighs your squeamishness. People say that looking at graphic imagery desensitizes you. For me, it’s utterly the opposite. I was only able to look at that the first half-dozen or so times that I saw it. So for months and months in the editing room, every time that scene would come up, both my editor and I would look away.

Wiebo, his family, and the family dog.

Does Wiebo have a problem with the film? Is this why he decided not to come to the festival?
He has one problem with the film. Over the course of the couple of years I shot it, we had all these conversations on camera about religious and theological matters, the purpose of which was to convert me or make me see the error of my ways. At times the family is very irritated at my inability to see the obviousness of God’s presence. But because it’s unresolved, and because I didn’t convert, they don’t go anywhere. What seem like serious conversations to him feel like sticking the pin in the atheist doll to me. And because there’s no forward progress, it’s hard to put them in the film. We tried, but they took the air out of the tires. Wiebo’s feeling is that he was far more concerned with my soul than he was with making the film.
That’s kind of nice to hear.
Well, yeah. But at a certain point I didn’t know what else to say. There’s only so many times you can say “no.” Especially when I’m the director, and the dialogue is directed between Wiebo and I. And then there’s my crew who I’m at pains to keep them out of the firing lines. They’re not the most fun meals I’ve ever had.
Photos and stills courtesy of Jennifer Mair/National Film Board.

Wiebo’s War premieres Saturday, April 30, at 7 p.m. at the Isabel Bader Theatre (93 Charles Street West). For additional screenings, and our review, click here. And for complete festival coverage, including capsule reviews of most feature films, head over to our handy Hot Docs hub.