Two Inupiat Eskimo teenagers from a remote Arctic town find themselves at the center of a tragic killing brought on by a crystal meth-fueled fight during a seal hunt in the frozen north. The childhood best friends try to cover up the death but struggle to elude suspicions, forcing them to confront the limits of friendship and forgiveness.
The fictional dilemma is the heart of "On the Ice," a thriller filmed in Barrow, Alaska, in 2010 with novice Inupiat actors. The 2011 Sundance Film festival entry will make its theatrical premiere Friday in New York and the Alaska cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks, then expand to cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco.
Barrow, an isolated whaling community of 4,300, is far from Alaska's limited road system. Located about 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle, it is the northernmost town in the United States. Winter means endless nights and summer constant daylight, and temperatures can dip to 40 below. Everyone knows everyone, often through family connections.
For the filmmakers, it was important to capture the setting. It was crucial to cast Inuit people as Inuit people.
"I didn't want to cast Japanese people or Korean people, which is what I grew up watching," said its New York-based director and screenwriter, Andrew Okpeaha (pronounced OOK'-peh-hah) MacLean. "It's just like, no way. That has to stop."
The 96-minute film is the first feature-length movie from the 39-year-old MacLean — who is part Inupiat and spent much of his youth in Barrow — and was co-produced by his wife, Cara Marcous. It was loosely based on their short film "Sikumi," which means on the ice in Inupiaq. The period film, shot in Barrow in the Inupiaq language, won the jury prize for short filmmaking at Sundance in 2008.
Both movies used novice Inupiat actors, though the short film starred older ones — mostly MacLean's friends. But few Inuits work as professional actors, especially teenagers, who were the focus of the story. Casting calls throughout Alaska, as well as in Arctic Canada, attracted about 700 hopefuls.
"They did an amazing job," Marcous, 36, said of the cast. "It's really incredible what they were able to do. They literally had no experience with the camera at all."
After the success of "Sikumi," the couple returned to Sundance to help develop the feature film, participating in Sundance Institute programs and getting paired up with advisers such as actor Ed Harris. Harris said he learned that MacLean's Native heritage is important to him and he has a keen passion for storytelling.
"I think he has a fine career in front of him because he gives a damn about the human condition, knows how to tell a story, is passionate about his work, and gaining confidence with every film he makes," Harris said in an email to The Associated Press.
The film, made on a budget of less than $1 million, has won several awards at other venues, including best first feature at the Berlin film festival. At the Sundance debut, "On the Ice" had the audience leaning forward, fully engaged in the plot, said Michelle Satter, founding director of the Sundance Institute feature film program.
The death at the center of the teens' plight — and the source of their ever-growing guilt — is open to interpretation as either an accident or a murder, as intended by MacLean.
"So much of what the film is about is about a kind of moral gray area," said MacLean. "Exactly what causes the killing is in question and who's responsible for it is really debatable. You could make a case for several different ways, and the response to it kind of builds on that, on that kind of moral ambiguity."
MacLean has an "exquisite eye" for the specific, presenting a little-known world with passion and clarity, Satter said.
"He's telling stories in such an honest and authentic place and with such rich detail that those stories will resonate for a much bigger audience," she said.