At the edge of the far Alaskan North, with temperatures and terrain pushing the limits of human survival, sits Barrow. At the center of this village, embedded deep within the culture, is a strong sense of community, born of the reality that the only way to survive the changing, natural world is to stick together.
Set in this landscape, “On the Ice” tells the story of two Inupiaq teenagers who find themselves facing cold isolation as they try to cover up the truth of an accident that happens on the shifting sea ice outside of the village. The film, shot on location in Barrow starting in March of 2010, explores the widening rift that opens up following the teens’ decision to deceive their community, threatening to sever the connections they’ve relied on their whole lives.
Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, the writer and director of “On the Ice,” grew up in Barrow and wrote the film based on the realities that he sees teenagers facing in a present day Arctic community.
“It’s possible for a kid to feel comfortable within the [mainstream] in a way that can be great, but it can also be dangerous because it can threaten values that have been established over centuries — that are important to the community and important to the place,” he said.
With instant access to popular culture via the web and television, youth still uncertain of their own identity might find their cultural values at odds with what they perceive the rest of the world embracing. In the film, the unity that is displayed through traditional dance contrasts against the swagger of urban rap music with its emphasis on violent individualism.
MacLean elaborated, “...there is a push and pull between [the values] and I think that’s an interesting place to set a film.”
It was important to MacLean to center his story on the two best friends, Qaali and Aivaaq, being rooted in the place they’ve grown up. Under the watchful eyes of the community, they’ve been involved in almost every aspect of each other’s life, and it’s tough for them to think of their friendship any differently.
At the start of film, talk of life past high school and the prospects of adulthood seem daunting. Qaali (Josiah Patkotak) is looking at going away to college and Aivaaq (Frank Qutuq Irelan) just found out his girlfriend is pregnant.
“They can feel the end of their friendship looming on them. I think that’s a real bittersweet time of life,” MacLean said.
At that moment, they think the truest test of their friendship will be if they can remain close even though their aspirations are taking them to different places. A short time later, when an argument escalates into a violent conclusion, the test becomes even more universal.
Out on the ice, the two boys are alone. The Arctic landscape, which MacLean originally envisioned when conceiving the story, resembles the vast emptiness that audiences are used to seeing in Westerns. In this setting, the chance to get away with anything seems possible. Out of fear and thinking they can, they return home and deceive the community.
“And that lie rips them out of that warm enveloping safety net,” MacLean said. “They are no longer able to rely on everything they’ve been able to rely on throughout their lives.”
Even though they are physically home, the boys discover themselves drifting further away from each other and their community as more lies, substance abuse, and betrayal slowly melt the bridge back to what life was like before.
Cara Marcous, the film’s producer, acknowledged that even though some of elements of the script are unattractive, they were able to find funding to make the film because there is truthfulness and respect in how the story is told.
“We managed to piece together enough supporters who understood what Andrew wanted to say,” she said. “The people who were investors were those who read the script and couldn’t put it down. Thought it was a page turner. Were completely captivated. Those were the people who wanted be involved.”
“On the Ice” has already received several awards, including a Crystal Bear for Best Film from the Berlinale Festival in Berlin, given in recognition of the film’s powerful representation of the voice of a younger generation. It played at national and international film festivals throughout 2011, and opens in theaters in Fairbanks, Anchorage and New York City this Friday. Juneau audiences will be next to see it, beginning Feb. 22 at the Gold Town Nickelodeon.
Early in the process of trying to get the film made, Marcous and MacLean sat down with Edward Itta, Mayor of the North Slope Borough at the time, to talk about their project. They weren’t expecting it, but Itta was excited about the script and said that the issues that the script dealt with “had to be talked about.” Underage drinking, drugs and suicide are real issues affecting the youth in villages across the borough.
MacLean explained, “If you see something that’s harsh, but you can see the truth in it, then you can accept it — if it doesn’t seem like a hit job… I wasn’t trying to portray Barrow in a negative light, but I wanted to tell the truth about things that [are happening].”
The positive truths of the community are given equal screen time as well. Even though the boys are caught within their own lie, the community tries to reach out to them in love, strength, and guidance.
“I think there is balance within the film. I think the strengths of the community are shown as well,” MacLean said.
Marcous added, “Quaali has a strong loving family. A healthy family.”
MacLean continued, ”There is hope around them at all times. Ultimately they do get through it. Ultimately they survive it, but it’s not like they survive unscarred. It’s not like they get to the end and they’re like ‘Life is wonderful and great,’ but they get through it. They aren’t destroyed by the experience. And I think the reason they aren’t destroyed is because of the strength and love that is surrounding them. And I hope that comes through to audience members who watch the film.”
MacLean and Marcous will be present at local screenings Feb. 22 and 23.
Showtimes are 5:30 and 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, Feb. 22 and 23, 9:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24 and March 2, and 4 p.m. Saturday Feb. 25 and March 3. For more, visit www.goldtownnick.com.