Barrow on the big screen: 'On the Ice' is an Alaska story

Lex Treinen / Sun Star Reporter
Feb. 28, 201

The movie poster for "On the Ice", the first movie to be completely filmed and set in Alaska, debuted in theaters on Feb 17, 2012. Image courtesy of Silverwood Films.

It’s not often that moviegoers have the chance to see Arctic Alaska on the big screen. Andrew Maclean’s “On the Ice” is the first feature-length film made entirely in Barrow, Alaska by an all-Inuit cast and an Inupiaq writer/director.  It premiered on Fairbanks screens Friday, Feb. 17.

Fairbanks was one of four cities in the nation selected for the premiere of the Sundance and Berlinale award-winning film. The first showing was met by a full house, according to Maya Salganek, assistant professor of film at UAF and a friend of the director.

“The film is making people rethink the traditional view that these kinds of films are unprofitable,” Salganek said, adding that the film is currently 12th in the nation in per-theater revenue.

The film tells the story of two boys’ accidental murder of their friend on a narcotic-influenced hunting trip. Qalli, a well-mannered teenager preparing for college, and Aivaaq, who is about to marry his pregnant girlfriend, try to cover up the murder of their friend, James. Soon their own guilt and the suspicions of Qalli’s father threaten the youths’ story and future plans. The film, while playing with some Western motifs of justice and and redemption, is much more rooted in Inupiat themes.

“There are no Western archetypical characters,” Salganek said. “Every character is complex in their own way.”

The film doesn’t wrap up in the usual Western style, either. “A lot of people are saying: ‘well there’s no resolution, when will there be a sequel?’ but for me the story resolved itself,” said Salganek, who has a master’s degree in anthropology.

The crew shot the entire film on a budget of less than $1 million, Maclean said in a phone interview. The film secured producers from a variety of nontraditional sources, including an early grant from the Princess Grace Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting and assisting young artists, and a fundraising website called Kickstarter. This money made possible the release of the film in theaters almost a year after its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011, Maclean said.

The grant from the Princess Grace Foundation helped Maclean and Cara Marcous, his wife and the film’s producer, to travel across the Alaska and Canadian Arctic on what Maclean called “an epic casting trip” to identify potential Inuit actors among the locals. To find talent in rural communities with little-if-any experience in filmmaking, Maclean and Marcous put up signs in grocery stores and on the radio.

“We just had them talk about their lives in front of the camera to try to figure out if they were comfortable on screen,” Maclean said. He invited the finalists to Anchorage for an acting workshop, where he and Marcous made the final casting decisions.

UAF students from the film and native studies departments had a chance to talk with Maclean and Marcous at UAF  on Monday, Feb. 20.  They asked questions about filmmaking in Alaska and discussed subjects ranging from polar bear defense while shooting to the importance of building trust between actors and their directors. For the students, the discussions provided both inspiration and information.

“He reminded us that a lot of filmmaking is a science,” said Kalesha Pearson, president of the UAF Film Club and an aspiring filmmaker, “It’s not just standing naked on the ice and calling it art — a lot of it was just the about nuts and bolts of filming here.”

Maclean was inspired by the students’ enthusiasm, he said.

“One of the things that has to happen in Alaska is we have to get more experienced people in Alaska,” Maclean said, adding that programs like UAF’s newly-opened Film Department, as well as the State of Alaska’s tax incentive program, are essential for developing the film industry in the state. While several Alaskans did work on the film, Maclean found that the number of qualified people in Alaska “is very small.”

Former UAF student Jay Rapoza was one of the lucky Alaskans who worked on the project. His film instructor at the time, Maya Salganek, encouraged him to audition for a role. “Being in Alaska limits you,” Rapoza wrote in an interview, adding that had there been an opportunity two years ago he would have “strongly considered majoring in film” at UAF. Nonetheless, he was rewarded for his audition and enthusiasm with a speaking role and the title of production assistant, which involved everything from catering for the crew by snow machine to standing on polar bear watch with an AK-47.

Rapoza called the experience of filming in Barrow “crazy and unorthodox,” but still hopes to continue combining his love of Native culture — which he is currently studying at UAA as an Anthropology major —  with his interest in filmmaking.

“On the Ice” is scheduled to open in 13 theaters in the by the end of March according to the film’s website, and is currently showing in Fairbanks at the Regal Goldstream Stadium 16.

“There aren’t that many movies that are made in Alaska that you just have to see,” Salganek said, “but this is one.”

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1 Response

  1. andy says:

    when’s the next broadcast for On the Ice?

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