In the isolated, frozen town of Barrow, Alaska, Iñupiaq teenagers Qalli and Aivaaq have grown up like brothers in a tight-knit community defined as much by ancient traditions as by hip-hop and snowmobiles. Early one morning, on a seal hunt with their friend James, a tussle turns violent, and James is killed. Panic stricken, terrified, and with no one to blame but themselves, Qalli and Aivaaq lie and declare the death a tragic accident. As Barrow roils with grief and his protective father becomes suspicious, Qalli stumbles through guilt-filled days, wrestling with his part in the death. For the first time in his life, he’s treading alone on existential ice.
In this utterly engrossing, suspenseful feature-film debut by award-winning short filmmaker Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, the snowy Arctic plains embody Qalli’s lost innocence, while the claustrophobic town mirrors his entrapment, as he trudges through layers of deceit and the gauntlet of how to be a friend and a man. [Synopsis courtesy of Sundance Film Festival]
“On the Ice”
U.S. Dramatic Competition
Director: Andrew Okpeaha MacLean
Screenwriter: Andrew Okpeaha MacLean
Cast: Josiah Patkotak, Frank Qutuq Irelan, Teddy Kyle Smith, Adamina Kerr, Sierra Jade Sampson
Producer: Cara Marcous, Lynette Howell, Marco Londoner, Zhana Londoner
Cinematographer: Lol Crawley
Editor: Nat Sanders
Production Designer: Chad Keith
Coproducer: Kate Dean
Responses courtesy of “On the Ice” director Andrew Okpeaha MacLean.
Reaching a bigger audience…
About ten years ago I was living at home in Barrow, Alaska, writing and directing plays with a small theater company I co-founded with a cousin of mine. We put in a lot of work into the pieces, and I’m proud of them, but Barrow has a pretty small audience base (the population 5000 or so). Film seemed like a way to tell stories that were relevant to me and my culture while reaching out to more than the 400-500 friends and relatives who would come to our plays.
A short leads to a feature…
“On the Ice” has a pretty interesting history. It’s based on my short film “Sikumi,” which means ‘on the ice’ in the Iñupiaq language. “Sikumi” was at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival where it won the Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking. I wrote the short as a writing exercise when I had writers block while working on a script based on an event from my grandfather’s life. So some of the characters have their roots in real people, but they’ve changed a lot along the way. “On the Ice,” the feature, is very different from “Sikumi,” the short. The characters are younger, and the story is more contemporary because I wanted to highlight some of the challenges facing kids in small arctic communities like Barrow.
Working with non-actors…
This was the first time acting for most, if not all of the cast. It was certainly their first time in a film. So I knew that creating a real ensemble feeling through an extensive rehearsal process was important. It started during the casting process. We flew the top contenders for the main roles from villages all over Alaska and Canada to Anchorage for a week long intensive workshop/audition. We were able to get to know them really well, and at the same time, begin the process of developing the characters months ahead of time. I then started rehearsing daily with the two leads a month before we started filming. By the time we were on set, with a camera, lights, crew and all the chaos that comes with it, the actors knew their characters and how to tell the story. Josiah and Qutuq, the two leads in the film, didn’t know each other in real life but had time to develop a chemistry that felt real. When the camera rolled they felt like best friends who had grown up together.
Money, money, money…
Each stage had its own challenges. But it all comes back to money. We had to find a way to shoot an ambitious story in a location at the end of the world on a very small budget. Every department had to live with constraints that made their lives more difficult. Personally I would have loved a few more filming days…. and more snowmobiles for transport, and more cooperative weather, and…but the challenges make it interesting.
Watching out for polar bears…
We’re probably the only film set in recent history that had to have a guy with an AK47 on watch for polar bears. Springtime in Barrow, which is when we filmed, is prime seal hunting season for bears. They can be pretty curious and aggressive that time of year. I’ve had bears visit set on previous films, but thankfully they stayed away from this one.
An adventurous audience…
Sundance audiences are adventurous. “On the Ice” takes them to a captivatingly beautiful place they’ve never seen, and at the same time it gives them an authentic and thrilling story that has a universal resonance.
“Atanarjuat” (The Fast Runner) by Zack Kunuk was and continues to be an inspiration. Zack showed us how its done — how to speak with an authentic Iñuit voice while reaching out to a broad audience. “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men” by the Coen brothers for the way their landscapes bleed into their characters. A whole bunch of Westerns for the same reason. Any of Kurasawa’s films for the complex heroism he finds in his characters.
Teaming up and sleeping…
I have a few script ideas that I’m excited to start writing. I’d like to try writing with a partner. I’ve never done that before. I’d also love to direct something I haven’t written, which I’ve also never done. And I wouldn’t mind sleeping for a month or so.