How do you put meat to the bones of Alaska issues without stepping into the realms of the overtly political or insanely technical?
You embark on an adventure, and take others on the journey with you.
Homer filmmaker Bjorn Olson believes such a method is the best way to talk about issues both present and on the horizon in Alaska. After all, throughout history stories have been a primary tool to draw attention to things happening right in the backyard that passing time seems to disguise.
“We call this kind of storytelling ‘cheese and broccoli,’” Olson said. “In order to get someone to eat their broccoli, you put some cheese on it. So the aim I have as the filmmaker, the storyteller, is to create an engaging story that focuses on the adventure and the great Alaskan spirit of getting out and enjoying and enduring the wilderness, and the personal lessons that come with that.”
The project Olson would like to see on his plate is a feature film following the big journey of a small family, Erin McKittrick and Hig Higman of Seldovia. In 2013, the couple embarked on a human-powered adventure around Cook Inlet, covering 800 miles in four months with their children, then 2-year-old Lituya and 4-year-old Katmai. Olson plans to retrace the steps of the family and incorporate footage from their journey, as well as photos and journal entries completed during the trek.
“I followed them and was pretty involved with them getting ready to go,” Olson said. “I spent time with them while they were here, and I met up with them in Cape Douglas when they finished.”
The filmmaker said the project would serve as a springboard to have conversations about Cook Inlet and the future of Alaska, following the precedence of McKittrick and Higman. During their journey, the two asked people the question, “What do you think the future of Alaska will look like in 50 years or so?” Olson said he will do the same.
“It is about addressing some of the big issues,” Olson said. “Climate change, oil and gas, the beluga whales — these things that are integral to our home and life. And if you think about the diversity of the communities along the Cook Inlet … that is such a wildly diverse (journey) in terms of the human element.”
Olson referenced Cook Inlet’s Native villages, Russian villages, Seldovia and Anchorage and expressed his desire to talk about local thoughts on how Alaska is taking shape, as well as concerns and efforts for the future in a “fun and engaging way.”
“Also from the eyes of a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old,” he said. “When we are talking about the future, we are talking about when they are adults living in it.”
Olson first became friends with McKittrick and Higman through the popularity of their human-powered expeditions, particularly their journey from the Puget Sound to the Bering Sea.
“I still consider that trip to be along the lines of Lewis and Clark,” Olson said. “It is so massive and you just really can’t imagine how far that is, and how diverse that is, to do that expedition. It really had a big impact on me.”
The pair run the nonprofit organization Ground Truth Trekking, striving to “educate and engage the public” on Alaska’s natural resource issues. Olson, who serves on the board of directors, explained that the aim of Ground Truth Trekking is to combine human-powered expedition experience with research to create powerful reporting with scientific backing on issues throughout Alaska.
Olson began working with the organization three years ago, embarking on human-powered journey to create the film, “Where the heck is Donlin?”
“For me, that was the initial spark,” Olson said of filmmaking on Alaska’s issues. “I was born and raised in Alaska, have been a ‘wilderness adventurer’ since I was 17, so adventure has always been a big part of my life. Outreach education and environmental issues have always been pretty important to me.”
Olson and his partner, Kim McNett, trekked over 1,000 miles to learn about a large gold mine prospect in his Donlin film.
“That trip was my first big film project,” he said. “I am still very proud of that project, but I have learned a lot about filmmaking since then, so I am really hoping that this film will stand on the shoulders of that in terms of artistic quality.”
“Where the Heck is Donlin?” was funded through Kickstarter, an online platform that uses an all-or-nothing model. Artists can propose their project on the website and give people from all over the world a glimpse of their vision, and the opportunity to donate. Each project includes the price tag of the total cost of the project, and is given a designated time frame for the length of the Kickstarter campaign.
People who make donations are referred to as backers, and depending on how much they donate, will get a token of thanks from the filmmaker.
But here is the catch — if all of the money, say, the $11,000 needed for the “Heart of Alaska” project, is not contributed by Dec. 5, then Olson will see none of it.
“I am totally sold on the idea,” Olson said. “By becoming a backer, you kind of become a part of the story. That this is a story by Alaskans, for Alaskans. Rather than the Discovery model, which is by Californians, about Alaskans, for Californians.”
So far Olson’s project has raised $8,620 through Kickstarter, and has only days left of the three-week time frame to raise the remaining $2,380.
If completed, the feature-length film would run roughly 90 minutes with an original soundtrack, specialized 3-D maps and graphics of the journey, and aerial footage from ZatzWorks, Inc.
“(The success of the Kickstarter campaign) comes with a big burden of responsibility,” Olson said. “I now have to meet the expectations that I set out for myself. And I am totally committed to that — to be able to take the great offerings and the well-wishes of all of (those involved), and to turn that into something really tangible and timeless is really exciting to me.”
Olson refers to his work as the Mjölnir of Bjorn, an homage to Scandinavian roots and a symbol of his love for photography.
“Mjölnir means the hammer of Thor,” Olson said. “When I carry my camera around my neck, it hangs like a Mjölnir, it looks like that shape. My Mjölnir is my camera.”
To learn more about the project and see the Kickstarter video featuring snippets from “Heart of Alaska,” visit www.kickstarter.com/projects/1977207210/heart-of-alaska, or simply search “Heart of Alaska” at www.kickstarter.com.