By Carey Restino
A video featuring many familiar Homer faces is circulating social media sites this week, but the faces have a disturbing feature — two strips of black tape making an “X” across their mouths.
The video is an effort to draw attention to concerns about House Bill 77, which opponents say restricts the right of Alaskans to voice opposition to State Department of Natural Resource decisions.
The proposed bill, which will be taken up again when the Alaska Legislature reconvenes in January, allows only public entities — not tribes, individuals or organizations — to apply for water reservations; a tool used to conserve fish habitat.
Filmmaker and opponent of HB77 Bjorn Olson said the idea to create a film that would, “do more than preach to the choir,” came from a meeting organized by Cook InletKeeper in late November focusing on HB77.
“I went not knowing what to expect,” Olson said. “The message I got was that people felt strongly about this and were looking for ideas about how to get information out to more people. I brought up the idea of making a short film and then it snowballed from there — and it snowballed fast.”
Creative input from several others, including Rebecca Siegel, led to the script and a call-out to those interested in participating in the video.
“I had no idea how many people would come,” Olson said, adding that he was surprised when 18 people — many of whom were fighting their own fear of being put in front of a video camera — showed up.
The concept was simple: Stand in front of the camera silently with the “X” of tape across your mouth, then take it off and say in a simple sentence how you feel about HB77.
The final line was, “I will not be silenced.”
Olson said he did not tell people what to say, though he did coach a few on how to consolidate their ideas into a simple, sentence-long opinion. He said one of the things most interesting about HB77 is that it transcends the typical lines of liberal and conservative views.
“It feels to me like this should be pissing off environmentalists and republicans in equal measure,” he said. “Silencing Alaskans is taking the power out of the hands of citizens and concentrating it in the hands of the government.”
For those concerned about bigger government, that might be a concern, he noted. And that was what he wanted to bring to light in his video.
“I wanted something that would bridge that divide, so we weren’t just preaching to the choir,” he said.
Olson said his hope is that, through social media sites like Facebook, the video will find a wider audience that is disturbed by the idea of government taking away the voice of Alaskans to weigh in on how resources are used. For those who don’t know much about HB77, the video might inspire them to educate themselves or sign a petition.
“Our Constitution is explicit in how it states that the citizens are the owners of state resources,” he said, adding that HB77 seems to him to be a backdoor attempt to silence the state’s “shareholders.”
This offering isn’t Olson’s first foray into film or political activism; he and his partner, Kim McNett, traveled across Alaska in an effort to bring attention to various development-related environmental issues, such as a recent trek around the Cook Inlet. They also embarked on a 1,000-mile, human-powered adventure into the Yukon Kuskokwim Region in 2011 in order to bring attention to the proposed Donlin Mine, which is currently in the permitting stage.
Olson said the video, which cost a total of $18 to make — he had to buy an Alaska flag to use as a backdrop — thanks to equipment donations and the enthusiasm of those participating. Most of the filming was completed in one day, but a final participant showed up the following day that Olson said he couldn’t pass up. A man from Nanwalek had brought his hearing impaired daughter to testify.
“I got goosebumps when I took a second to think about the symbolism,” Olson said. “This girl was signing that she doesn’t want to be told she can’t speak.”
You can view the video on Olson’s Facebook page or by searching for “HB77, the silencing of Alaska act” on Vimeo.com.
A meeting will be held Dec. 10 in Homer with Department of Natural Resources Deputy Commissioner Ed Fogels and Alaska Department of Fish and Game Director of the Division of Habitat, Randy Bates, at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. The presentation will run from 4-5 p.m., with an invited stakeholder panel discussion taking place from 5-6 p.m. Recorded public testimony (two minutes per participant) will be taken between 6-7 p.m.
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