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Groundbreaking 'On the Ice' by Barrow filmmaker finally released

Ben Anderson

More than a year ago, “On the Ice” -- Barrow filmmaker Andrew Okpeaha MacLean’s Alaska-filmed tale of tragedy in the far north -- debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Since then, the film has been shown across the U.S. and the world, making rounds on the festival circuit. But it never saw a theatrical release.

All that will change on Friday, when “On the Ice” appears in Fairbanks, Anchorage and New York City theaters. And how do MacLean and producer Cara Marcous feel about finally hitting the homestretch in what’s been a long odyssey of ups and downs -- capped off by an intense fundraising effort late last year to secure the distribution deal that’s made the release possible?

“Relieved,” MacLean said in a January interview shortly after the film’s public release was announced.

“It was very hard earned,” Marcous said. “Nobody else was doing it for us.”

That late fundraising effort -- accomplished through the online fundraising site Kickstarter -- raised more than $80,000 to advertise the film, create the physical film reels for theaters, and get distribution for on-demand video services.

Both Marcous and MacLean said the decision to independently fund distribution came early on. “On the Ice” debuted at Sundance in January of 2011 to lukewarm reviews. The film gathered steam at the Berlin Film Festival, where it won the award for Best First Feature as well as the Crystal Bear, awarded by a youth jury of audience members 14 years and older.

A big part of working the film-festival circuit involves attempting to secure a distribution deal, but that window of opportunity closes quickly.

“We weren’t going to festivals to get a sale. After a certain amount of time, you don’t really sell a film at a lot of the festivals,” Marcous said. “By the time Berlin came around, we won the two biggest awards that we could possibly win. It was this huge deal, and we still didn’t get a persuasive-enough financial offer to do it.”

Perhaps the movie was considered a tough sell -- filmed in Barrow using mostly first-time actors, “On the Ice” tells the story of two young friends, Qalli (played by Josiah Patkotak) and Aivaaq (Frank Qutuq Irelan) who spend their days doing what many teens do, regardless of geography -- hanging out with friends, going to parties, having dinner with their families.

When the two have a hand in a tragic accident during a seal hunt with another boy, they try to cover it up. While the setting is extreme, the themes of the film are universal, as the boys deal with guilt and the tightening noose of their lies in a tight-knit community.

The film is based on a previous short film that MacLean directed, “Sikumi,” which told a similar tale with only Inupiaq dialogue. “Sikumi” means “on the ice” in Inupiaq. That short film won the Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, which then led to the full-length feature.

“On the Ice” is beautifully shot, and captures Barrow in all its iciness and perpetual daylight. It also features an ominous, atmospheric score by composer iZLER, whom MacLean was connected with through the head of the composers’ lab at Sundance.

Unconventional distribution

But the setting, the film’s use of almost entirely Alaska Native actors and no recognizable faces may have contributed to its getting passed over in the early days -- which led to the decision to hold the Kickstarter campaign, with a little help from Sundance.

“We’d hoped we could raise it elsewhere, but we kind of had to do Kickstarter,” Marcous said. The process was stressful, with tens of thousands still to be raised not long before the fundraiser ended.

Though some donations were larger than others, many small donations from all around Alaska helped filmmakers reach their goal. And in the eyes of MacLean and Marcous, the more donors, the better.

“We had 840 people who were backing it,” Marcous said.

“And one of the great things about that,” MacLean interjected, “is that all those people are now invested in us to a certain degree and we’re hoping to rely on them to help spread the word, and to come watch it, and to become a community.”

“We feel a kinship with them, you know?” Marcous added.

Now it will all come to fruition. After Friday’s opening in three cities, it will debut in Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., Chicago, and Santa Fe, N.M. on Feb. 24. On March 2, it will play in Seattle.

The film’s Anchorage and Fairbanks debuts will be the first time that many people will be able to see the movie. The movie was screened in April for a Barrow audience -- where reaction was very positive -- but MacLean said he wanted Alaskans to be involved in the film’s final product, the theatrical release.

So what’s next for MacLean?

“A lot of the energy has been going to this, but there are other projects in early stages of development,” he said. “There’s scripts that I’m writing or writing treatments for, there’s some projects that I’m attached to as a director for scripts that were previously written by somebody else. There’s a bunch of things (but) I don’t know what’s going to be the next thing to happen.”

And for the film’s young stars, Patkotak and Irelan? MacLean said he thought they’d be willing to act again, but it would have to be the right project. Both stars were able to travel to Berlin for the awards ceremony, and it was a remarkable visit, with young girls asking for their autographs on their first trip out of the U.S.

“They both, in hindsight, look at it as a positive thing,” MacLean said. “But they’re not interested in moving to L.A. and following that career path.”

“Filming (‘On the Ice’) was hard. Filming was very difficult, and a lot of work,” he said. “Harder than I think they were anticipating. By the end of the filming process, if you asked them ‘would you do it again?’ you’d get a very different answer than you would now.”

I asked Marcous and MacLean if that’s how they felt about their Kickstarter campaign -- sure, it was very difficult during the process, but given the reward, would they do it again? It may still be a little fresh, and both MacLean and Marcous say they’re glad they made their goal, but that it was a much harder road than people think.

“I’m just glad we made it,” Marcous said.

On the Ice” opens Friday at Tikahtnu Theatre in Anchorage and Goldstream Theatre in Fairbanks.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com