The Reluctant Radical Documentary Follows One Man’s Direct Commitment to Environmental Activism

2016 was a hard year to get any news that was not related to the presidential election, so many have not heard about the collective efforts of environmental activists who shut off valves connected to oil pipelines across the United States.

One such “valve turner” is Ken Ward of Corbett. He is also the subject of a documentary called “The Reluctant Radical,” directed by Lindsey Grayzel.

The film will be screened at Riverside Community Church in Hood River on May 15, followed by a Q&A with Ward and Grayzel.

The Enterprise spoke to both Ward and Grayzel about the project and their experiences.

The film’s director Lindsey Grayzel approached the film’s style in the form a character portrait of Ward as an environmental activist. Character portraits are a style of documentary filmmaking that focuses on real-world people and their interests.

The film was initially going to be a short film, roughly 15 minutes, but turned into a feature film, over an hour long.

“We started filming in 2015. I decided to do the character portrait style documentary about Ken Ward because of his commitment to direct action. The film is about Ken’s use of direct action as the most effective political tool to tackle climate change. What changed was that the film went from being a short film to a feature length film when Ken decided to work towards shutting down the tar sands oil pipelines with other valve turners,” said Grayzel.

The film follows Ward’s actions right up to and after he shut off the Trans Mountain Pipeline in Skagit County on Oct. 11, 2016, as part of a coordinated national effort.

He was arrested and charged with trespassing, burglary, sabotage, and assemblage of saboteurs. Grayzel and her cameraman Carl Davis were also arrested and charged with the same crimes, despite being on the other side of the fence and not having taken part in the crimes themselves.

If convicted, the maximum sentence the group faced was up to 30 years in prison. Fortunately for Grayzel and Davis, the charges against them were dropped a month after their arrest.

Grayzel is currently working on an audio documentary on the trial of Emily Johnston and Annette Klapstein, who shut off the Enbridge Energy Pipeline in Leonard, Minn.

“This trial has been allowed the use of the necessity defense, meaning that the jury could be instructed that it could legally find the defendants not guilty if they believe that the defendants acted to prevent a greater crime from happening. There is some concern that the prosecutor will send the trial to the state supreme court or lessen the charges to avoid a public trial. If this case goes through, it could be a huge win for climate activists,” said Grayzel.

The necessity defense that Grayzel mentions is “the notion that the illegal action under review was justified to prevent a greater harm,” according to Ward and his legal team.

Regarding the film, “The Reluctant Radical,” Grayzel hopes that the film will inspire audiences to, “take a moment to reflect on their lives, think about climate change and its impacts and take action.”

The Enterprise asked Ward about the timeline of events that led up to the coordinated valve shut off.

“Many of our group took part in the Anacortes Break Free Action in May 2016, which is depicted in the movie. Between June and August, a group of us researched the feasibility of a coordinated, safe action on Canadian tar sands pipelines. The Shut It Down group came together that September, and undertook the action in October,” said Ward

Readers may remember the “Break Free Action” that Ward is referring to when hundreds if not thousands of kayakers and campers prevented entrance to March Point in Anacortes; 52 people were arrested.

Ward also mentioned the “Shut It Down” group, a reference to the other valve turners who participated in the shutting down of crude oil pipelines across the country in October 2016; many of them are about to serve their sentences or face trial.

“We remain together as a group, supporting each other at trial, and in the case of Michael Foster, imprisonment,” said Ward.

Foster is a Seattle-based climate activist who shut off the Keystone Pipeline in North Dakota. He was charged with trespassing, criminal mischief, conspiracy to commit criminal mischief and reckless endangerment. The latter charge was dismissed, reducing what could have been a 21-year prison sentence to three years, which was then deferred to one year — which he is currently serving.

Foster also had a documentarian and film crew with him who was also arrested and charged with the same crimes. The documentarian was Deia Schlosberg, a co-producer on “The Reluctant Radical.”

Ward himself was initially charged with the four crimes, but two of them were dropped.

“I was initially charged with four crimes, later reduced to two felonies: sabotage and burglary. At the first trial in January 2017, it was a hung jury. At the second trial, in June 2017, the jury was hung on the sabotage charge, but convicted on burglary. I was sentenced to two days in jail, which I already served, and 30 days community service, which I completed working with Skagit Habitat for Humanity, “said Ward.

The Enterprise asked Ward about how he felt having all this documented and filmed.

“It’s an odd experience to have a film crew around, especially for some challenging moments, but it became commonplace and familiar over time. I was shocked when Lindsey and Carl were originally charged with same crimes I had been. It was quite a relief when the charges were dropped after a month,” said Ward.

Regarding what he, as the subject of “The Reluctant Radical,” wants people to take away from the film, Ward said, “I do not have any particular expectations about what people will take away from the movie. One of the joys of speaking after movie screenings, as we will be doing in Hood River, is to hear from viewers what moves them and raised questions.”

You can find out more about the film and the directors at

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