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Andrew Okpeaha MacLean: On The Ice

The award winning director discusses his latest film, a drama set in his Alaskan hometown of Barrow

A while back, at the Stockholm Film Festival, young Alaskan film director Andrew Okpeaha MacLean presented his new feature film, “On The Ice”. In the film, Okpeaha invites us to his hometown of Barrow, a small town in the most northern point on the Arctic, to immerse us in a coming of age dramatic story. Shot under extreme weather conditions, the film deals with the reality of the Inupiat people, a native American community in Alaska. We see violence, drugs, freedom and isolation... both traditions and modern changes but with a local touch through a sort of a gangsta-eskimo movement; kids with rifles driving snowmobiles.

The story centres around a fictional killing, and its aftermath, whilst reflecting on actual facts; crystal meth coming to the Arctic, the local hunting tradition and the community supporting each other. Okpeaha directed a previous short movie with a similar story, 'Sikumi', that won the jury price at Sundance in 2008. With 'On The Ice', he dives into all these psychological aspects, highlighting the behaviour of the community in general, and a gang of kids specifically.

Dazed Digital: Can you tell us about Barrow...
Andrew Okpeaha MacLean: It's the Northern-most town in Alaska on the very top of the Arctic ocean. A village primarily Inupiat between 4 to 5000 people, which is large for the area. I'm related to half of the town, probably (laughs). It still very much follows many of the hunting traditions, relaying on things like sea hunting and at the same time becoming more connected to the outside world; especially with the Internet. All the kids have Facebook, twitter and mobiles... just like kids everywhere these days. So there's an interesting mix of the modern with older culture.

DD: What differentiate 'Sikumi' from 'On The Ice'?
Andrew Okpeaha MacLean:
'Sikumi' actually means 'On the Ice' in the Inupiat language. I didn't want just to make it longer and turn it into a feature. I wanted to re-look at themes of the story. The plot is similar, both films are centered around a killing and the kind of moral response to that. 'Sikumi' is set back in the 1950s, so the characters are driving dog teams and they're older, in their 30s. 'On the Ice' is very current when it comes to what's going on in the Arctic region right now, dealing with issues of substance abuse and things like crystal meth, which came to the Arctic only recently. The main characters are 17-18 years old.

DD: How do you think this everyday life is reflected in the film?
Andrew Okpeaha MacLean: I think that the film is accurate in its portrayal of one aspect of life there. I wouldn't say that the film is completely definitive of what life in the Arctic is like. The film is looking at this community undergoing a tragedy to a very extreme situation. Most days in Barrow there are no killings (laughs). It's a peaceful community.

DD: How is the heritage of the native cultures in Alaska represented in the current generation?
Andrew Okpeaha MacLean: I think the Inupiat culture has undergone incredible changes over the past 50-100 years. That's reflected in my own life, in my family's life. My grandfather was a hunter. How he fed his family, that's what he did for a living, essentially. My mother went to college and she's the first person in our community to get a PhD. Then here I am, a filmmaker. Many aspects of their life has changed dramatically. But the core of the culture, who we are as Inupiat, stays the same.

DD: Tell me bout the Arctic gangsta eskimo movement...
Andrew Okpeaha MacLean: Yeah, (laughs). I think, like kids everywhere, kids in the Arctic they take on aspects of popular culture, and hip hop is one of those things. They take that sort of attitude on, but they're not gangsters, they're not out there killing people. There's a kind of machoism. At the same time, they're also using hip hop to express their own pride in being Inupiat, expressing their love of the culture. They're not trying to be Lil' Wayne, but it say something about them.

DD: We see kids wearing rifles in the film. Is this actually happening in real life?
Andrew Okpeaha MacLean: Oh yeah. You can't really go outside of the town without a rifle; it's not save to do that. Specially not if you go out over the ice because there's where the polar bears are. Most likely you'll be fine but still it's a bad idea, you need to have respect for what they are, so bring a rifle just to protect yourself.

DD: The film deals with the claustrophobia, the freedom and isolation of the environment...
Andrew Okpeaha MacLean: This was an important aspect in the story from the beginning. You have the environments of the ice, which feels very open, it seems like you can see forever. It's a feeling of a loneliness. That leads ti questions of morality, especially surrounding the killing. It feels like it's possible to kill somebody and to hide it, much like in a desert. Then you have the town, which is completely different, you are surrounded by people that you've known your entire life, most of them are related to you in one way or another: there are no secrets which has a very claustrophobic feeling to it, like it's impossible to get away with anything. But at the same time this environment is very loving, everybody supports you, even as they may be judging you. So it was important to have the attention between these two themes.

DD: Any ideas in mind for the next project?
Andrew Okpeaha MacLean: I’m not sure what the next project is going to be. There are several scripts that I’m writing. Some of them take place in the Arctic, some of them don’t. One takes place in the Grand Canyon, which will be very interesting, then there are a few projects I’m attached to not as a writer but as a director as well. Writing is very tough, but I like it - it can be very interesting just approaching something as a director. Hopefully I will be directing something again for the next year.