Film brings traditions of Inupiaq to screen

Posted: Tuesday, June 24, 2008

It is the year for Barrow based-movies.

Shortly after "30 Days of Night" put Barrow on the map, "Sikumi" reinforced the area and its people as worthy film subjects.

In January, filmmaker Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, originally from Barrow and Fairbanks, walked the red carpet with familiar Hollywood faces at the Sundance Film Festival. His film, which in English means "On the Ice," was chosen as one of 83 special selections of short films out of 5,000 films sent.

More recently, the film collected awards for screenplay and directing at the First-run Film Festival at New York University, where MacLean completed his graduate studies.

Inspired by Sergio Leone and other Western filmmakers in the 1950s and 1970s, "Sikumi" is an "Arctic western" featuring a fictional treatment of a real-life situation.

Apuna, the lead character in this Inupiaq-speaking film, crosses the sea ice several miles north of Barrow on a dogsled when he witnesses a community member in the act of murder. Isolated from anyone and anything, both men face tough questions about their morality "outside the bounds of society," according to MacLean.

"I was thinking about how the characters would react to this situation and how they would react as Inupiaq people, taking into consideration our concepts, values.

"'Avoidance of conflict,' this is how this character would deal with this situation," MacLean said.

"He wouldn't try to subdue the killer but tries to find way to bring the killer to realize the magnitude of what he's done - bring justice within himself."

All three men playing in this film are local actors from Barrow. Brad Weyiouanna plays Apuna, Tony Bryant, with family ties to Point Barrow and Point Hope, plays Miqu, and Olemoun Rexford plays Taqi, the murdered hunter.

MacLean wrote the film as his master thesis project for the filmmaking program at NYU.

This is MacLean's second film to appear at Sundance. His first film, "Seal Hunting with Dad," or "Natchiliagniaqtuguk Aapagalu" in Inupiaq, was a documentary inspired by MacLean's grandfather's life and was screened at the New York Museum of Modern Art in April 2005.

MacLean's films are primarily shot in Alaska and focus on the Arctic and the Inupiaq culture. While living in Barrow before leaving for film school, MacLean co-founded the first Inupiaq-speaking theater company. Both Rexford and Bryant had acted in the theater prior to making films with MacLean.

MacLean has dedicated himself to promoting the preservation of his Native tongue.

Familiar with the language from home but not a fluent speaker, MacLean taught himself the language with the help of his mother Edna Agheak MacLean, who is a well-known linguist. His mother also helped translate the film's script from its original English version to Inupiaq, according to MacLean.

"Most of my generation grew up around the language but couldn't really speak it myself, and I was feeling something was missing," MacLean said.

"I tried to teach it to myself and tried to find ways to use it - one of the ways that has been effective is in theater and film pieces that I make," he said, "I want to get it to be used in a more public way as part of the media.

"Everywhere you look there is pop culture reference to Eskimos, but no one has seen Inuit culture as expressed by Inuit people," MacLean said.

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