Review: Wiebo’s War

 

With “Wiebo’s War” being released to several theatres this week, I thought I should republish a review I wrote earlier in the Spring while it screened at the Hot Docs 2011 film festival. It’s fascinating, heartbreaking and easily one of the best documentaries I’ve seen all year. A list of cities screening it can be found at the bottom of the review.

 

Typically, the best documentaries are the ones that make you look at something from a different angle, approach a situation or person in a way you never expected and even further educate you on a topic that you thought you already knew. For example, if you’re Canadian, you may think you know the story of Wiebo Ludwig. If the name rings a bell or two, it is more than likely the warning kind that signals “crackpot”. Director David York’s current day look at the man, his closed community and the history of his battles with the oil companies drilling near his land may not completely change your view of Wiebo, but it might give you some insight into some of his actions.

Some background first…Ludwig was implicated in several oil pipeline bombings in Alberta and B.C. in the late 90s and involved in the shooting death of a young teenage girl on his property. He was charged and found guilty on several counts of vandalism that related to the explosions and served close to 2 years in prison before being released and allowed to return to his community’s compound. The community is a devout Christian one that he has built up with several families and is mostly self-sufficient which allows them to stay insulated – apart from the occasional trip to town – from the rest of society. Of course, given that oil production is a big part of the economic engine in this region, many people weren’t exactly happy with Wiebo’s alleged involvement with those bombings and he and his family weren’t overly welcomed in town. One night in 1999, a group of teenagers went joyriding on his property and before you could say “stupid prank gone wrong”, a young girl was dead. As reported at the time, Wiebo came across as an eco-terrorist who had a borderline cult deep in the backwoods of Northern Alberta backing him up.

Would you like to know more…?

Hot Docs 2011 – Capsule Reviews #3


 

TheCastle1

 

One final burst of short reviews from this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival:

 
 

Recessionize1

Recessionize For Fun And Profit! (2010 – Jamie Kastner) – The secondary title of Kastner’s film states “15 Simple Steps!” and refers to the 15 sections into which his 60 minute Michael Moore-esque jaunt of a doc is broken. And “broken” is a pretty apt description. It’s supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek look at the various ways people retool their businesses during tough times to continue to make money (from German hookers offering “green” discounts to classes teaching young children the joys of capitalism), but it comes across as condescending, smug and quite lacking in anything to say. At least it’s not dull, though, since it does feature some occasionally interesting people and ideas (some good and some so very not good) and switches gears and stories every 3 to 4 minutes. Unfortunately, Kastner inserts himself into the movie and though he tries, he doesn’t even have Moore’s sense of humour (which admittedly isn’t exactly finely tuned). I’ve tired of Moore by this point and find him just as bad as the far Right fear-mongers he targets, but at least I get his points (whether I agree or not). Kastner just comes across as thinking he is better than essentially everyone else in the film without showing any just cause.

 

BuryTheHatchet1

Bury The Hatchet (2011 – Aaron Walker) – I’ve been to New Orleans twice (though not since Katrina) and love their approach towards ensuring their mix of cultures is less of a bland “melting pot” and more a tasty gumbo. One such example is the Indian Big Chief during Mardi Gras – a tribute to the Native Americans who helped runaway slaves. Over several years, Walker’s film follows several tribe leaders through their annual preparations for the big day (mostly via the creation and donning of their wondrous costumes of brilliant coloured feathers and sparkles), their tussles with local police, other leaders and tribes and, of course, Katrina. Even with an Interstate running right over their old parade route, the chiefs maintain their traditions and ensure they get passed down through to the next generation. As the chiefs strut their stuff in these huge costumes, you can’t help but be reminded of a peacock proudly displaying its tail. They may seem boastful as they talk of their costume designing, sewing, singing and songwriting skills, but the pride comes from a deep respect of their heritage. If you’ve ever wondered what a flagboy is, they will be glad to tell you and provide even further education on their living breathing culture. And the music is fantastic.

 

Would you like to know more…?

HotDocs 2011: Wiebo’s War


 

 

Typically, the best documentaries are the ones that make you look at something from a different angle, approach a situation or person in a way you never expected and even further educate you on a topic that you thought you already knew. For example, if you’re Canadian, you may think you know the story of Wiebo Ludwig. If the name rings a bell or two, it is more than likely the warning kind that signals “crackpot”. Director David York’s current day look at the man, his closed community and the history of his battles with the oil companies drilling near his land may not completely change your view of Wiebo, but it might give you some insight into some of his actions.

Some background first…Ludwig was implicated in several oil pipeline bombings in Alberta and B.C. in the late 90s and involved in the shooting death of a young teenage girl on his property. He was charged and found guilty on several counts of vandalism that related to the explosions and served close to 2 years in prison before being released and allowed to return to his community’s compound. The community is a devout Christian one that he has built up with several families and is mostly self-sufficient which allows them to stay insulated – apart from the occasional trip to town – from the rest of society. Of course, given that oil production is a big part of the economic engine in this region, many people weren’t exactly happy with Wiebo’s alleged involvement with those bombings and he and his family weren’t overly welcomed in town. One night in 1999, a group of teenagers went joyriding on his property and before you could say “stupid prank gone wrong”, a young girl was dead. As reported at the time, Wiebo came across as an eco-terrorist who had a borderline cult deep in the backwoods of Northern Alberta backing him up.

Would you like to know more…?

Hot Docs Wrap-up Podcast: Kurt Guest’s on The Documentary Blog Podcast


 

You may have heard me talk in brief about many HotDocs titles, during the documentary film festivals early May run, on the Row Three Cinecast. Or you read Bob and my own coverage in the form of full length and capsule reviews during the same time period. But a little more time has passed and a little more reflection on what were the key successes and failures on offer and I had a chance to sit down and talk at length with Jay Cheel for The Documentary Blog.

We talk a long time. How long? Here is the time tracks below which give the specifics of all the films we cover at length.

0:00 – Intro
9:00 – POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
18:00 – Fightville
33:20 – Superheroes
48:40 – Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop
1:02:45 – Resurrect Dead: The Mystery Of The Toynbee Tiles
1:18:00 – Wisconsin Death Trip
1:27:40 – Project Nim
1:56:40 – Eco Pirate: The Story Of Paul Watson
1:58:30 – Abendland
2:02:15 – Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
2:08:10 – Hell and Back Again
2:13:30 – Position Among the Stars
2:17:20 – Hot Coffee
2:28:10 – Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo
2:32:00 – Boy Cheerleaders
2:42:00 – Outro

Head on over to The Documentary Blog to listen to this show, or to subscribe to their iTunes Feed.

HotDocs 2011: The Guantanamo Trap


 

 

The Guantanamo Trap signals early on (with some rather poorly intoned narration) that it has a bias to it. Hell, it’s title alone gives that away. Fortunately it’s strength is that it mostly tucks that bias away when the people are talking – in particular, when the person who wrote the “torture memo” (the letter that suggested many “enhanced interrogation techniques” should be used at Guantanamo) lays out her views.

Not that you need to be completely even-handed when discussing torture, but it’s quite fascinating to hear Diane Beaver (appointed legal advisor to the camp command at Guantanamo in early 2002) talk about why she wrote that initial memo and why she does not believe that any of those techniques bordered on torture (by what she terms as “any definition” of the word you’d care to name). The film itself is quite careful to never explicitly state that any of these methods are actually torture, but it’s hard to escape that conclusion when you hear people who have experienced it talk to the camera about it.

Murat Kurnaz is first up. Kurnaz, a German-born Turkish National, was picked up in 2002 and eventually fed into Guantanamo as he was under suspicion of being part of the worldwide al-Qaida network. He was left, without charges, in Guantanamo and suffered through 25 hour long interrogations, no food for days at a time, humiliation and other such tactics for a period of 5 years. Turns out there was no shred of real evidence against him. Rumours and speculation plus being in the wrong place at the wrong time (a trip to Pakistan to immerse himself in Islam) sealed his fate. One of the German al-Qaida cells had apparently been a major part of 9/11, so when they heard things like Kurnaz had condoned the attacks (he was “said to have” anyway), had always wanted to fight and had bought a combat suit and boots, he was a prime target (much of that information was learned from his mother). His blank expressionless face as he describes his lengthy stay speaks volumes – he had essentially given up life while incarcerated.

Would you like to know more…?

HotDocs 2011 – Capsule Reviews #2


 

Abendland3

 

A few more mini-reviews from the onslaught that was Hot Docs 2011:

 
 

Dragonslayer2

Dragonslayer (2011 – Tristan Patterson) – Winner of this year’s Best International feature at Hot Docs, Patterson’s debut feature is in many ways a simple film – it follows skateboarder Skreech through several weeks of skating, hanging out, travelling and living a hand to mouth existence. It’s much more than that though. The well deserved accolades the film is receiving (Sundance had praise for it too) come from the way it tells its story, which uses a fractured timeline and slides effortlessly between lovely cinematography and hand-held shakiness, as well as the full picture it gives of Skreech’s life. Broken down into 11 different sections (each numbered), we follow the skatepunk through various empty backyard pools in California to numerous minor skateboard contests on the West Coast and all the way to Denmark while occasionally side stepping to spend time with his baby son, his new girlfriend and a lot of alcohol and weed. He’s not the most sympathetic of main characters, but is still somewhat charming at times and you can’t help but hope he finds his way. The sections focusing on Skreech and his girlfriend sometimes have a bit of a feel of a low-budget Indie film (though a well executed and shot one) and if they managed to capture and frame these shots “on the fly”, it really is a remarkable achievement. The craft of the film really accentuates what must be a blurry day to day existence.

 

StHenri1

St-Henri The 26th Of August (2011 – Shannon Walsh) – As a kid growing up on the South Shore of Montreal, the only part of “the big city” I was familiar with was the downtown core which contained the big department stores. When I began attending post-secondary school in downtown Montreal, I used to get lifts into the city with my Dad and every day we would drive through the neighbourhood of St-Henri – an area that is surrounded by the Lachine Canal and expressways. I found it a fascinating and somewhat sad part of town – it seemed to be filled with huge abandoned factories (all with their windows smashed out), but had lovely bike paths along the canal and promises of condos, coffee shops and everything the young urban professional wanted. Watching Walsh’s single day view of the area (filmed by 16 different filmmakers), I can see that certainly some of those promises were kept, but many more were broken. Cutting between several different subjects, the film gives us wide coverage of the spectrum of St-Henri – the nationalities, the age ranges, the working classes – and a feeling of what it might be like living in the community. It’s not always pretty, but seeing so many slices in a mere 90 minutes (even though you never get a real strong attachment to any of the characters) reminded me how fascinating St-Henri was. The film is a tribute to the 1962 documentary (by Hubert Aquin) “St-Henri The 5th Of September”.

 

Would you like to know more…?

HotDocs 2011: Project Nim Review


 

 

Meet Nim Chimpsky, the irrepressibly cute chimpanzee snatched from his mother at birth from the Oklahoma Institute by Primate Studies by Columbia professor Herbert Terrace for a radical experiment in language and cognition: Could a chimp learn sign language and have a cross-species conversation with human beings? The superlative new documentary from James Marsh (Man On Wire, Wisconsin Death Trip) is an animal activist film, an epic custody battle drama, and more than anything a look at the many post-hippie social experiments going on in the United States during the 1970s. While animal lovers will get their fill of cute anthropomorphic snaps of Nim as he grows up with a variety of human companionship, for my money, the chimpanzee is a mere catalyst for all the good-intentioned-with-bad-egos, quite misguided behavior of academia and of human beings in general. You hurt the ones you love. Nim may be an animal beholden to his human masters, in fact one of the conclusions of the three year study is that they trained a subtle world-class beggar (not a high-functioning communicator), but his tragedy is far more reflective of science at its most primitive. Marsh uses a blend of current talking heads, environment re-creations and archival footage and snaps so seamless that one less savvy filmgoer might be convinced that this documentary was nearly 40 years in production.

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HotDocs 2011 – Awards


 

SomewhereBetween

 

The 2011 version of Hot Docs has now closed its doors for another year and once again is basking in the glow of success. As the festival transitioned some of its screenings to the new TIFF Lightbox theatres, it seems like it is well prepared to continue to grow – not just in the number of films it screens or in its reputation, but as a forum for new filmmakers (through panel sessions, workshops, etc.). The Audience Award winner (and Top 10) was announced a few days ago and the jury-voted Industry Awards last Friday. Here’s a rundown:

 

Hot Docs Audience Awards

  1. SOMEWHERE BETWEEN (D: Linda Goldstein Knowlton, USA)
  2. GIVE UP TOMORROW (D: Michael Collins, USA/UK)
  3. HOW TO DIE IN OREGON (D: Peter D. Richardson, USA)
  4. WILD HORSE, WILD RIDE (D: Alex Dawson and Greg Gricus, USA)
  5. SENNA (D: Asif Kapadia, UK)
  6. BUCK (D: Cindy Meehl, USA)
  7. JIG (D: Sue Bourne, Scotland)
  8. ECO PIRATE: THE STORY OF PAUL WATSON (D: Trish Dolman, Canada)
  9. BEING ELMO: A PUPPETEER’S JOURNEY (D: Constance Marks, Philip Shane (Co-Director), USA)
  10. KORAN BY HEART (D: Greg Barker, USA)

 

Knowlton’s Somewhere Between examines the lives of several Chinese-born, but North American raised (after being adopted) young girls and how they navigate their cultural landscape. Knowlton herself had adopted a Chinese girl and wondered how a previous generation had been coping.

And the big winners from the jury voting:

Would you like to know more…?

HotDocs 2011 – Capsule Reviews #1


 

MatchmakingMayor2

 

The Hot Docs 2011 festival may now be over (award winners announced and we’ll post them shortly), but we still have some reviews (capsules like these as well as full ones) to percolate through over the next few days.

 
 

Superheroes

Superheroes (2011 – Michael Barnett) – The regular average-joe playing at superhero is a bit past its freshness date as a central plot point in fictional film at this point (four films in the past year or so made use of it), but what about in documentaries? You knew there had to be a few “crazies” running around in the dark with their homemade capes, so a feature length film about them sounds like a blast right? Well, yes and no. Barnett’s Superheroes is at times a fascinating look at a good 20-30 different people who patrol their streets (almost always in a costume with a mask) from all over North America and can be a great deal of fun as we see the different approaches to crime fighting, weapon choices and costume design. It’s more than just tinged with sadness, though, as we hear some of these people’s back stories and find out why they feel compelled to help protect their neighbourhoods. I found there to be a few too many stories to get completely wrapped up in the individual characters, but there’s enough in the film to still penetrate the most robust of defenses. Also, who knew that even superheroes weren’t beyond the occasional bit of entrapment?

 

TheHollywoodComplex

Hollywood Complex (2010 – Dylan Nelson, Dan Sturman) – No matter how often I have to remind myself that I shouldn’t judge other parents in how they choose to raise their own children, occasionally I just can’t help it. And The Hollywood Complex – which covers the better part of 8 months in an apartment complex for families looking to break their children into television stardom – had me handing down sentences like Judge Judy trying to clear the docket on a Friday afternoon. In many cases, one of the parents stays with the child in a small apartment for the entire period of “pilot season” (when the networks are looking to cast their new shows and regularly look for new faces) while the other stays far away at home. In one somewhat upsetting case, the mother and daughter had been living at the complex for 3 full years (not even going back home to the rest of their family during the summer months) hitting auditions, casting calls and the like – with nary a job to show for it. The film provides some interesting behind the scenes looks at the process, the different types of coaching and training the kids get and a diverse set of opinions by professionals. The most galling are the rah-rah coaches who feed the kids and parents’ heads with dreams of fame and fortune when in reality the business is rather unforgiving. There’s not a great deal special in the way the film is shot, but it does what it needs to do. The unfortunate thing is that films of this type really need their central characters to be not just people you root for, but ones you feel a connection to in some way. For the most part, all I felt was frustration and even disgust.

Would you like to know more…?