Dramatic Grand Jury Prize Winner: Frozen River

Courtney Hunt shooting FROZEN RIVER

Courtney Hunt first heard the story of Native Americans smuggling merchandise over the frozen St. Lawrence river – an anecdote that would become the basis for her 2008 Sundance Film Festival Dramatic Grand Jury Prize FROZEN RIVER [frozenriverthemovie.com] – more than ten years ago. She had just graduated from Columbia’s MFA program and her 20-minute short ALTHEA FAUGHT had been picked up by PBS’s “American Playhouse.” Hunt had traveled to the New York/Canadian border, talked to the local Mohawk tribe about the conditions they lived in and the reality of smuggling cigarettes, and then wrote her screenplay. But as Hunt remembers, “no one in the mid 90s was interested in stories of women on the Canadian Border.”

After 9/11, when the vulnerability of American borders was reaching a national crisis, Hunt did believe her film might be worth revisiting. However the conditions were different. Not only was there increased border surveillance, but the smuggling had changed – it was no longer cigarettes, but illegal immigrants, primarily Chinese men and women, trying to get across the border. Hunt reworked the story, and then discovered her lead Melissa Leo, when the actress showed up for a screening of 21 GRAMS at the Columbia County film festival in upstate New York. By 2004, Hunt had a 15-minute short that premiered at the New York Film Festival. But it would still take another two years of hunting down funds before Hunt would start production under sub-zero conditions by the Mohawk Indian reservation. After 24 very cold days, working with many non-professional and native actors, Hunt had the film that would win a Sundance Grand Jury Prize in the can.


Peter Bowen

Editor, FilmInFocus.com