In 2008, Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, Inupiaq, showed a short film, “Sikumi (On the Ice)” at the Sundance Film Festival. Three years later, in January 2011, he screened the feature-length movie, On the Ice, that his short evolved into.
It’s been a long road for what is probably the most talked-about Native film in years, but On the Ice has reached an ending of sorts, which is also a beginning. On Friday, a film that has wowed judges on the film festival circuit will finally debut at theaters around the country. On February 17, On the Ice will be shown at two venues in New York City: Lincoln Center in midtown and at Village East Cinema in downtown. On the same day, it will also screen in MacLean’s home state of Alaska, at theaters in Fairbanks and Anchorage. In the weeks to come, On the Ice will open in Juneau, Alaska; Portland, Oregon; Chicago, Illinois; Los Angeles, California; Seattle, Washington; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Scottsdale, Arizona; San Francisco, California; and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
If awards are any guide, On the Ice is a film worth seeing—and then some. It won the Best First Feature prize at the 2011 Berlinale, the FIPRESCI Prize for Best New American Film at the 2011 Seattle International Film Festival, Best Narrative Film and Best Cinematography awards at the 2011 Woodstock Film Festival. Additionally, MacLean was recognized as Best Director at the 2011 American Indian Film Festival and On the Ice received Honorable Mention for Best Film at the 2011 Cine Las Americas.
In a highly informative interview with the blog of Filmmaker: The Magazine of Independent Film, MacLean talked at length about the the making of On the Ice.
On casting first-time Native actors: “There was no way I was going to cast non-Inuit actors for this film. … My producer Cara [Marcous] and I went on a trip to small communities in Canada and Alaska. We’d put up flyers at the supermarket and then go to the local radio station. We’d even get on the local CB network —because that’s how a lot of people communicate up there—and make announcements. ‘Hey, come be in a movie!'”
On the feature’s resemblance to the short: “[‘Sikumi’] is a period piece set in the early ’60s, a time when dog teams were still a dominant mode of transportation. … When I turned to the feature, I decided to make it contemporary. One of the stereotypes about indigenous filmmaking is that you see many idealized versions of the past, and I wanted to do a film about who we are now. … I find it fascinating what the youth are going through. And as I started to look at my characters in that setting, they started to become more complex, and it became a suspense film.”
On the film’s journey: “We could have sold the film at Sundance or after Berlin, and it would have gotten a fairly limited release in New York or Los Angeles, and then gone on to video. But we decided there was an audience in [Alaskan] communities that will come to the theater and make a film like this more successful. … It’s vital to us that we go to Alaska: there’s an audience there and a hunger for films that have a level of authenticity, that bring a deep sense of truth to stories from that place.”
Below is the film’s trailer. For more information on screenings, see the official site, ontheicemovie.com.