Dear Governor Hickenlooper: Fractivists make a documentary
What separates activism from electioneering as voting day approaches?
AT THE beginning of this month, “Dear Governor Hickenlooper,” a collection of short anti-fracking documentaries and the product of more than a year’s work by Director Stash Wislocki and Producer David Holbrooke looked like it had been beached.
The Governor had pulled the proverbial rabbit out of the well and announced the unlikely — he’d rallied big natural gas executives, green organizations and Democratic Boulder Congressman Jared Polis behind a blue ribbon commission to settle the flare-hot issue of communities’ local control over oil and gas development. The two initiatives to limit fracking that Polis was backing financially, and which had been a big part of the motivation for Wislocki’s film, were officially wiped out.
The film, intended as an educational piece and to encourage folks to vote in favor of initiatives like the 2,000-foot setback of oil and gas infrastructure from occupied structures, had lost some of its specificity, though activists still plan on delivering the deeply personal piece to the Governor as a kind of visual letter from citizens.
“The goal now is to show it to people, to educate them and get them fired up, or at least thinking about the issue,” Wislocki said of the decision to keep the film on its statewide release roll. “I hope it doesn’t just show to the anti-fracking base, who are well educated and know their beliefs, but more into communities that are affected by fracking but don’t know a lot of the facts about fracking.”
The film is comprised of a dozen Colorado-made shorts covering everything from the basic science and social ills of hydraulic fracturing technology to the development of renewable energies. It’s designed to be watched as a whole, or for sections — like the stop-motion “Fracking 101” narrated by Cornell engineering professor Anthony Ingraffea — to be used as educational tools on their own.
Both Wislocki and members of the activist organizations that supported the film, like Food and Water Watch Colorado and Frack Free Colorado, say they will continue to promote and screen “Dear Governor Hickenlooper” right through the 2014 election cycle. It’s already slated to show at a number of film festivals and available to independent screenings of just about any scale.
“We’re really excited to have the films because they enable Food and Water Watch and our partners and supporters to continue to spread the word for the movement to ban fracking in the state,” said Sam Schabacker at Food and Water Watch.
If you watch the trailer for “Dear Governor Hickenlooper,” you’ll notice it’s personal, inherently political and more than just titularly targeted. The reel opens with a title slide that is also an address to the current governor, who’s running for reelection this fall, and it closes with Hickenlooper’s name hovering in the dark earth below a field of windmills. In the middle of the trailer, the documentary’s narrator Shane Davis, aka The Fractivist, says, “The industry and the state and our elected officials and Governor Hickenlooper are certainly not protecting the health and safety interests of the people of Colorado….”
Even so, Wislocki says the film is not intended to impact Hickenlooper’s re-election bid so much as it’s inspired by a similar anti-fracking film made in New York, “Dear Governor Cuomo,” and a forthcoming national equivalent, “Dear President Obama.”
“I particularly don’t see it as a political piece,” said Wislocki. “Whoever was governor, if they were supporting the natural gas industry, the film would have been ‘Dear that governor.’”
Wislocki added that at one point during the film’s production campaign staff for a third-party gubernatorial candidate came to them looking for endorsement and Wislocki intentionally steered away from that.
“We didn’t want to endorse a candidate in the film whether in office or not. We just wanted to make those already in office aware that there are many of us who feel fracking isn’t the right way,” said Wislocki.
Since the allied forces behind the “Dear Governor Hickenlooper” have long-term goals about banning fracking and switching to renewable energy sources, that probably spells trouble for whichever of the two major-party candidates wins in November — Hickenlooper or his Republican challenger former Congressman Bob Beauprez. Both men are considered oil and gas development friendly, both are vehemently against a statewide ban of any kind.
Even so, it’s not Beauprez’s name on a film that’s touring the state during an election cycle.
Wislocki was pretty sure someone sent an online view-code to Hickenlooper for his eponymous documentary and a more official delivery to the Governor is planned for later in the fall, but Hickenlooper’s official staff said they couldn’t comment on the matter because it was a campaign-side issue. The campaign hasn’t returned requests for comment.
Schabacker agreed that the film is not intended to endorse any candidate and was careful to add that Food and Water Watch, a 501(c)3 non-profit, also refrains from offering endorsements. But those involved with the film are not shy of offering critique of a current candidate.
“I can tell you that frustration with Governor Hickenlooper is clearly not just relegated to the left, I’d say it’s pretty political-spectrum wide,” said Schabacker.
“It’s not just on obvious issues like guns and the death penalty, it’s also fracking. There are lots of conservative Republicans who are not happy with how he is rubber stamping thousands of permits for wells going near homes and schools… whatever your political persuasion, it’s fundamentally wrong for our Governor to be fracker-in-chief.”
Though the film offers no official endorsements and hardly rises to the mention, dispersion and partisanship level of a Citizens United documentary advertisement, Dear Hick and its trailer are set to do a few similar things — namely, as it pertains to Colorado campaign finance law, mention a candidate close to an election.
Citizens United, the Washington-based conservative messaging group behind the U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing almost unlimited, nearly untraceable campaign spending, also has plans to release a Hick-themed documentary in the next few weeks. The group specifically petitioned the Secretary of State’s office to allow them to keep their funding secret in Colorado. So far that’s a no-go, with much of the focus landing on Citizens United’s proposed advertising for the film, which is where things can get sticky for political pieces that mention candidates near an election. It remains to be seen if the makers and promoters of Dear Hick will run into the same problems.
“If they run ads for this within 60 days of election, they’ll trigger disclosure,” said Luis Toro at Ethics Watch Colorado, adding that the Dear Hick team would need to spend at least $1,000 on advertising in order for Colorado’s campaign finance laws to require them to file official funding records.
Right now the Dear Hick website, like many film sites, already gives an informal shout-out to sponsors — organizations like Protect Our Colorado as well as individuals and outdoors companies, notably Patagonia.
Dear Hick’s distribution method also appears to be grassroots. Wislocki noted that the film often screens without him knowing it in basements around the state. Organizations like Food and Water and Frack Free Colorado have been promoting the film using its online trailer, but that activity doesn’t seem to rise anywhere near the financial investment of Citizens United’s planned TV ads, billboards and mailings of pre-election advertising for their anti-Hick film.
“There’s a lot of activism that’s under the radar because they’re not spending a thousand dollars and that’s OK,” said Toro. “We’re worried about the corrupting influence of money in politics.”
[Still from Dear Governor Hickenlooper]
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