Tilting at Windmills

21 mins read

“If we’re getting people annoyed, we’re doing something right.”

So says the eponymous subject of Trish Dolan’s new documentary Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson, an intimate yet impressively wide-scaled profile of the infamous environmental activist that premieres at Hot Docs. Dolan, a well-known television and feature film producer who founded Screen Siren Pictures in 1997, spent the better part of the last decade compiling footage and interviews for the film, which follows Watson’s career from his work co-founding Greenpeace in the early 1970s to his very public break with the organization and more iconoclastic activities as the captain of the Sea Shepherd —a floating torpedo that has (allegedly) sunk 10 illegal whaling boats.

“In the early 2000s, nobody wanted to make this film,” explains Dolan via telephone from Screen Siren’s Vancouver offices. “He was too radical for most of those networks like Discovery—what he was doing was too political. Also, people weren’t sure if this older guy was still relevant anymore and were questioning if maybe it was time for him to hang his hat up at that point. I felt strongly that there was a story there, and that it reflected the evolution of environmental activism in Canada, from the 1970s to the present day. The thing about Paul is that he’s kept at it when others haven’t, or have maybe changed their approach. His contemporaries are now consultants or are academics, writing books. Whereas Paul has kept doing the same thing the same way, taking these ships out for 30 years.”

Dolan’s observation is apt in that Eco-Pirate captures a sense of shifting public sentiment across the decades even as its central figure remains—via the observations of others and in his own words—a largely static figure. There’s a famous quote from Ralph Nader where he said that “every time I see an injustice in the world, I see it at age 17,” and there’s something similarly arrested about Watson’s worldview, which seems to have been cemented in his childhood experience of removing beaver traps from his family’s property in New Brunswick. Time and again in the film, Watson talks about how his feelings for animals and the natural world outstrip his appreciation of his fellow human beings.

It’s that same attitude that gives Watson’s opponents ammunition in shooting down his methods, which often run outside the law and pose as much of a danger to his collaborators as they do to their targets. Like his contemporary David Suzuki, Watson doesn’t show much interest in preaching to the non-converted: the bluntness of his rhetoric, combined with the reckless (and some might say feckless) nature of his practice, alienates at least as many people as it seduces. When Patrick Moore—a key figure in the early days of Greenpeace along with Watson and the late Bob Hunter—refers to his former colleague as the “Rambo of the Environmental Movement,” it doesn’t ring as a compliment.

Dolan, who worked closely with her subject over the six years that she shot the film—which involved joining Watson and his crew for a mission in the Galapagos Islands in 2004—deserves credit for including so many dissenting voices. She didn’t shy away from deeply ambivalent ones either, especially Watson’s (now-ex) wife Allison, who speaks candidly about how the man’s tireless dedication to his cause has made him a less than ideal domestic partner. She admits that getting these people to talk about their relationships with her subject wasn’t always easy, but that an even bigger challenge was figuring out what to do with Watson himself, as he’d recently made appearances in commercially successful documentaries like The Cove and Sharkwater, to say nothing of the Animal Planet series Whale Wars, which chronicles his efforts to battle Japanese whalers (and which was memorably parodied by South Park as “Whale Whores,” complete with an animated avatar of Watson that even his most embittered associates would probably agree was unflattering).

“Paul is used to having cameras around all the time,” says Dolan. “He likes it. So if you want to get something more personal, you have to push deeper.” She cites the scene early in the film where Watson describes staring down a Russian whaling vessel off the coast of California—the primal scene of his eco-activist celebrity—as being particularly hard to capture since he’s already told the story so many times. “I had taken a workshop with Kevin Macdonald about his documentary Touching the Void, about the two climbers,” says Dolan. “He had the same problem with subjects who had a very intense story that they’d told many times, and so to get beyond that, he talked to them for two days straight, asking more and more probing questions and pushing them to tell it in a different way. I felt that Paul’s story was coming across as very ‘same-y,’ and I told him that: I said, ‘If this had such a big impact on you, I need more of a sense of what it really felt like.’”

Her nudging worked, and Watson’s recollection of the event—one man in a small boat, his attention caught between a looming whaling boat and the penetrating gaze of its quarry—is tremendously vivid. In other moments, though, Watson’s spiel still comes off as polished and rehearsed, and footage of him at a fundraiser in 2009, surrounded by celebrity admirers like Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis, hint at the conflation of celebrity striving and personal principles.

In these moments, Watson seems like a very canny, social creature, but there are also scenes that reveal his isolation, like a sequence where his younger colleagues enthusiastically dive from the boat into the ice-cold ocean and he bluntly demurs. “What I observed is that for Paul, people are often a mystery and the ocean isn’t. I can see him being puzzled sometimes by what people ask of him. Like with his crew: he just doesn’t do interpersonal issues. When that stuff comes up, he will always refer them to the first mate. It’s just not his area of sophistication.”

This is the central contradiction of Eco-Pirate: its subject’s passionate ideological engagement is belied by a sense of personal detachment. But he’s got nothing on the controversial activist at the centre of another Hot Docs entry. David York’s Wiebo’s War concerns a man who hasn’t just alienated people on the other side of his particular ideological divide but also pretty much everybody outside of his immediate family. The Dutch-born Ludwig, who founded a religious commune in a place called Trickle Creek outside Hythe, Alta., in 1985, has been one of the most polarizing figures in Western Canada—if not the whole country—over the past three decades. Ludwig’s goal in establishing his commune, which asks its residents to live entirely self-sufficiently off the land and maintains only a bare minimum of communication with the outside world, was to create an environment conducive to the strict and rigorous practice of his religious faith.

Wiebo Ludwig and his Christian Reform beliefs (including the total authority of husbands over their wives) didn’t exactly endear him to his new neighbours. But he kept his flock at enough of a remove that there were no major problems. That is, until he began to lobby the province’s various oil and gas companies over a series of sour gas leaks on his property—events that resulted in illnesses and death for his livestock and, he alleged, contributed to two of his daughters suffering miscarriages.

In 1996, the Alberta Energy Co. Ltd (AEC) proposed a series of seismic tests on his property. Less than two years later, an AEC pipeline was blown up by a projectile bomb; it was the first major salvo in an escalating series of sabotages across the oil-patch apparently committed by Ludwig and his clan.

He never admitted his guilt, but there was enough circumstantial evidence that Ludwig was convicted on five separate charges related to the bombings in 2000. (He was paroled 19 months later.) Ludwig was not charged, however, in the 1999 death of Karman Willis, a 16-year-old girl who had driven onto the Trickle Creek farm in a pickup truck with friends in the middle of the night before being fatally shot—presumably by one of the residents. (Nobody in the family took responsibility.) Ludwig, who had often likened his struggle against the oil and gas companies to a war, was now seen to have innocent blood on his hands, and a story that had been framed by the media as that of a pious David nipping at the heels of an industrial Goliath was transformed into something else entirely.

“There was very little national coverage of what was going on before 2000,” explains York, the film’s Toronto-based television producer. “The trial happened before the age of our constant nervous breakdowns over terrorism. It played as a story about vandalism.”

Willis’s death, and the sensational coverage of Ludwig’s trial, brought national attention onto a figure whose stated goals had been to be left alone with his way of life—not that he shied away from the media spotlight. “He was this incredibly charismatic guy,” recalls York. “And he was talking to the press every day.”

Wiebo’s War is by no means the first attempt to tell Ludwig’s story: in 2002, journalist Andrew Nikiforuk published the Governor General’s Award–winning book Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig’s War Against Big Oil, which quickly became the definitive text on the subject. There was also a 2003 TV movie, Burn: The Robert Wraight Story, a fact-based account of the eponymous Trickle Creek recruit turned undercover police informant. But there had never been a feature documentary, and York decided that he wanted to try to tackle it—which meant, of course, getting in touch with Wiebo Ludwig.

It took a year before he began filming, although not without duress. “At first they thought I was a cop,” laughs York. “They had been under surveillance before, and had had a guy infiltrate their home before. Later, they thought if there was any incriminating material on camera I might turn it over to the police.”

York says that he understood their paranoia, but that there were other, more philosophical difficulties in shooting the film: in the very first scene, Ludwig complains that because the filmmaker is an atheist, he’s incapable of understanding and telling their story: “You can’t possibly get in touch with it, because you’re living in terrible darkness.” “The audience might think that the debate between religion and atheism is going to be a thread of the film, but it’s just a framing device,” explains York, who says that he was frequently lectured about the dangers of his secular lifestyle by his subjects during the time that he was their guest. But he never wanted to make the film into a referendum on theological issues. “It’s a set of goggles to see the film through,” he says. “It’s how they define themselves and their struggle. He does see his struggle with the oil and gas companies in religious terms—not as David and Goliath, but as a conflict between good and evil in the end times.”

The Wiebo Ludwig who emerges over the course of York’s film is not altogether different from the one presented in the media over the years: bearded, beatific and condescending, a confident orator in love with the sound of his own voice and unyielding when it comes to espousing his core beliefs. The likely potential audience for Wiebo’s War —i.e., the habitually liberal film going crowd that tends to patronize Hot Docs or art-house cinemas—is probably not going to be very sympathetic to his person, even though most of them would probably identify with the anti-corporation, anti-pollution, pro-environment aspect of his activism.

It’s in the acknowledgement of this ideological friction that Wiebo’s War starts to transcend its status as reportage and becomes something quite singular within the recent cycle of eco-documentaries: a Quixotic saga with a severely tarnished knight. “He’s not a hero in classic terms,” says York. “Like, he’s not Che. As the film goes on, the audience needs to have the means to make their own mind up about how far they will go with him—how far they’ll head down that path.”

Even as Wiebo’s War circles back through time to offer a primer on Ludwig’s past (some of it related through home-movie footage shot by his family), it also captures events as they were happening in 2009, including the most recent pipeline bombings thought—but as yet not proven—to be his handiwork. “I thought I was making a movie about people trying to move forward and wrestling with issues of succession,” says York, who points out that there are seven unmarried adult children among Ludwig’s followers. “But then, bombs started going off. So I had a story with a strong past tense and an evolving present tense.”

That sense of evolution also applied to York’s personal relationships with his subjects, who declined his offer to append a two-minute “response” to the end of the film stating whether or not they believed they had been treated fairly. (Amazingly, all family decisions related to the making or content of the film had to be videotaped rather than written out as contracts, because the family would not sign paper release forms of any kind). “I think they were uncomfortable with the Karman Willis material,” says York, “but they felt that the film, and its ending, was true to their situation.” In the final scenes of Wiebo’s War, we see Ludwig protesting the construction of a well adjacent to his property. His position is justifiable, but he has no other supporters beyond his family, the environmental community having long since been alienated by his behaviour and actions.

“They don’t have a voice, or allies, or a means of defending themselves against a well placed immediately adjacent to their land,” observes York. “No mainstream groups are standing with him, nor does the media show up any more to cover the story. His isolation in that moment feels very much like he’s reaping what he’s sown. He’s not King Lear, but I was struck by the great line in Lear —‘I am a man more sinned against than sinner.’”

It’s a compliment to the drama and complexity of York’s film that the Shakespeare reference doesn’t feel like overreaching. Wiebo’s War is so even-handed, in fact, that it’s likely to frustrate some viewers who might want the director to do more to condemn his subject. York doesn’t want to say too much about his personal feelings towards Ludwig (who apparently tried to end their working relationship several times over the course of the shoot) but he does have some insight into this character. “One rule I have learned in documentary is that the characters who work best are the ones with a point of view that hasn’t been validated,” adds York. “Vanity isn’t enough. There has to be something deeper that they feel hasn’t been seen yet.”

Adam Nayman is a critic and teacher in Toronto. He writes for Cinema Scope, The Ringer, and other publications.

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