On the Ice

On the Ice

Josiah Patkotak as Qalli in ON THE ICE, a film by Andrew Okpeaha MacLean. Photo credit: Sebastian Mlynarski. Picture courtesy Silverwood Films. All rights reserved.

On the Ice

  • Allison Warden
  • Tara Sweeney
  • Vernon Kanayurak
  • Jay Rapoza
  • Billyjens Hopson
  • Denae Brower
  • Richard Enlow IV
  • Tasha Taaqpak Panigeo
Executive Producer:
Photography Director:
Production Designer:
Costume Designer:
Music Supervisor:
Associate Producer:
Sound Design:
Stills Photographer:
Production Company:

* Most external filmography links go to The Internet Movie Database.

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On the Ice (2011/2012)

Opened: 02/17/2012 Limited

Village East02/17/2012 - 02/23/20127 days
Monica 4-Plex02/24/2012 - 03/01/20127 days

Trailer: Click for trailer

Websites: Home, Facebook, Blog

Genre: Thriller (English and Inupiaq w/English subtitles)

Rated: R for for language, some drug content and violence.


In this engrossing and suspenseful feature film debut by filmmaker Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, two teenage boys who have grown up like brothers go about their lives in the comfortable claustrophobia of an isolated Alaskan town. Early one morning, on a seal hunt with another teenager, an argument between the three boys quickly escalates into a tragic accident. Bonded by their dark secret, the two best friends are forced to create one fabrication after another in order to survive. The shocked boys stumble through guilt-fueled days, avoiding the suspicions of their community as they weave a web of deceit. With their future in the balance, the two boys are forced to explore the limits of friendship and honor. Featuring breakout performances by Josiah Patkotak and Frank Qutuq Irelan.

Director's Statement

On the Ice was filmed 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Barrow, Alaska. This is my hometown. The temperature in winter is often over 40 degrees below zero. From November through January the sun never rises; from May to August the sun never sets. It is a place of limitless expanses of land, sky, and ice that paradoxically can evoke a crushingly claustrophobic sense of isolation.

Alaska is one of the last mythic places in the world. Nearly everyone has heard of it, but very few have any real understanding of what life in the Arctic is really like. The majority of the population are Inupiat, as am I. Centuries old traditions are still a bedrock of life. Hunting seals, walrus, and whales provides much of the food the town lives on. This is a unique setting for a film.

The main characters, Qalli and Aivaaq, are from Barrow. They have grown up there, much as I did. As such their lives have been far from what is considered normal in other parts of the country. And yet they are also much like 17 year-olds anywhere in North America. Their day-to-day dramas of status and identity can be found in any small town. On the Ice is a character-driven thriller about getting away with murder and a morality tale about the limits of friendship and forgiveness.

It is a story that can happen anywhere, but only happens as it does here, in the Arctic.

-- Andrew Okpeaha MacLean

Q&A with Writer/Director Andrew Okpeaha MacLean

You're a native of Alaska who started out working in theatre--how did you get into filmmaking?

About ten years ago I was living at home in Barrow, Alaska, writing and directing plays with a small theater company (Inupiat Theatre) that I co-founded with a cousin of mine. We put in a lot of work into the pieces, and I'm proud of them, but Barrow has a pretty small audience base, a population 5000 or so. Film seemed like a way to tell stories that were relevant to me and to my culture and to be able to share my work with more than the 400-500 friends and relatives who were able to come see our plays. I applied to the NYU Grad Film Program, got accepted and went from there.

My philosophy of working in independent film is to tell compelling stories about interesting and real people. My Inupiaq culture is a part of the films I make because it is a part of who I am.

ON THE ICE is somewhat of an adaptation your award-winning original short, SIKUMI. How did SIKUMI evolve into your first feature length film?

My short, SIKUMI, which means 'on the ice' in the Inupiaq language was at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival where it won the Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking. SIKUMI was the jumping off point for the feature, and the two projects share significant thematic similarities, but ON THE ICE the feature has developed into something very different.

The characters in ON THE ICE (the feature) are teenagers as opposed to adult men and the film is set in the present day. I wanted to tell a contemporary story because I wanted to highlight some of the challenges facing kids in small, arctic, Alaskan communities like Barrow.

Everything has accelerated considerably because of the saturation of modern/western culture. That theme of rapid social change is part of what I wanted to show on screen. Kids are forging their identities both from traditions that stretch back a thousand years and from a contemporary culture that reinvents itself every twenty minutes.

Hip-hop has become a part of this identity. Kids who have never been within a thousand miles of an inner city are finding their voice through an essentially urban art form. I thought that was really interesting.

What went into casting your lead actors as well as the locals featured in ON THE ICE?

They're all non-actors. My producer Cara Marcous and I spent three months running casting workshops all over Alaska and Arctic Canada. "Aivaaq" (Frank Qutuq Irelan) was cast out of Nome--I met Frank years ago in Nome and with a little prodding from his mom, Frank came out to auditions and nailed it. It was his part to lose from his first audition. Some of the others, like Sierra, who plays "Uvlu," sought us out; she flew herself in from her smaller village Kiana to read for us at the Kotzebue auditions. Teddy actually auditioned initially on video. I directed him over the phone and he uploaded to YouTube.

We met Adamina in Montreal in a very rushed layover on our way back to New York. We were flying back from Nunavut where we had held auditions in Igloolik, Iqaluit and Kuujjuaq and we actually held her audition in our hotel room.

Josiah who plays "Qalli," auditioned pretty late in the process. We made several trips to Barrow attempting to find our "Qalli." One day, during a particular lull in the audition process, Cara and I walked out into the waiting area and there was this crew of fifteen year-old boys hanging out in there. We were only auditioning young people who were 16 or older in general, but then I noticed Josiah--a boy who I had first met years ago when I went on a hunting trip at his father's cabin; he was six or seven at the time.

Josiah had always been a cocky, self-assured kid, and I had a feeling he might connect with the character. I decided to give him a shot even though he was too young and asked him to come read for the part. My instincts were right--he knocked it out of the park the very first time; his ability to understand Qalli and react genuinely in the moment were exceptional.

In order to make our final decisions, in January of 2010, we flew the top contenders for the main roles to Anchorage from all over the state. Our final call-back group was about 15 people vying for 5 roles. We spent a week doing acting exercises, improvisation, script analysis, and scene work with a special focus on helping them learn how to exist in the moment. It is not an easy thing to do, even for an experienced actor, and all of the actors needed some time to become comfortable. For the last two days of our casting intensive we filmed a variety of scenes from the script so the actors could get a taste of the actual filmmaking process. It was also an opportunity for us to see them in action under pressure.

Although it wasn't our main objective, the week also served as an in depth rehearsal process for those actors who were eventually chosen for the roles. Josiah, Qutuq, Teddy, Adamina and Sierra all came into the production process having a much deeper understanding of their characters.

Then the remaining main roles of Aaka, James, Sigvaun and Dora were people I had known from Barrow. Rosabelle ("Aaka") is a friend of my mom's and she's always cracked me up. I actually always had her in mind when I wrote the part. John Miller ("James") was someone I met several years ago in Barrow. Tara ("Dora") and Allison ("Sigvaun") are both friends of mine I've known for years.

Finally in March, a month before we started shooting, we flew the chosen lead actors to Barrow and rehearsed with them intensively during prep, gradually adding in other characters as we got closer to production. Having a month of in depth rehearsals on location during prep was unusual, but I think it's the reason why the performances are as successful as they are.

The film portrays the town of Barrow as a very tight and sequestered community, which is especially seen through interactions between the protagonists [Qalli and Aivaaq] and their fathers. There is a strong sense of unspoken history in this town.

Absolutely; first off, so few people live in places like Barrow, it's difficult for outsiders to comprehend that kind of isolation. There is no road in or out of town, no waking up in the morning and deciding you and your friends can go drive to another town. You're stuck there with everyone you've ever known--most of them of some relation to you. As a result, everyone within the community is extremely tight and for the most part, people are incredibly generous with each other.

At the same time, in Barrow like any small town, everyone knows everyone else's business. And in a community without secrets, Qalli and Aivaaq struggle to deal with their guilt and shame over what has happened. At the wake--which is called a "Singspiration"--we see the people of Barrow singing together as a means to deal their grief. But the boys are unable to participate because of the lie they're carrying within themselves--and this lie ends up completely alienating them from what is essentially their entire world.

In the film, we see the presence of crystal meth in the Barrow community. How prevalent is that particular drug in Barrow and what is the current state of drug culture there? Have there been major changes in the past decade or so?

Like many communities across the country, crystal meth is a growing problem in Barrow and other villages in rural Alaska. It's such a dangerous drug, because it's cheap, powerful, easy to transport, and can be instantly addictive. Substance abuse factors into so many of the problems facing rural communities. It contributes to domestic violence, non-domestic violence for that matter, suicide, joblessness and poverty. I think everyone in a village like Barrow knows someone who's life has been touched by meth. I know I do. While I don't think of the film as a 'message movie', hopefully we can be a part of furthering the discussion of how to fight this drug.