Frozen River: a review

Passenger Films recently hosted a night of film and popular geopolitical reflection more generally on the subject of ‘water, ice and borderlands’. The event was designed in part around the award-winning film, Frozen River (2008) but also to draw attention to the way in which borders and borderlands needs to be thought as having material qualities. They are never simply lines on the maps. Co-curated by Peter Adey and Klaus Dodds, the programme brought together two political geographers (Jason Dittmer and Alasdair Pinkerton) and a cultural-historical geographer now working with the British Library as Curator of Canadian and Caribbean Studies (Phil Hatfield).

The programme opened with Phil introducing a short film called The Great Mapmaker (1964), which addressed the role of David Thompson, the fur trader and surveyor who helped map 3.9 million kilometres of North America. From 1817-1837 Thompson served as an astronomer and surveyor for the International Boundary Commission, and in particular worked on terrain close to the St Lawrence river. Phil highlighted, through his introduction, the way in which the collection of cartographic knowledge was an integral part of the creation of what was later to become Canada (1867 as a federal dominion) but also how colonial trading was intimately connected to a strategic geographical knowledge of resources, landscapes and peoples. The film also raised interesting issues about how native peoples were not only represented but the various roles performed including acting as field agents, resource gathers and, in some cases, as impediments to those who wish to colonize, exploit and survey.

Jason Dittmer and Al Pinkerton reminded us that the Canada has multiple borders and the northern edges of the second largest country in the world have long been considered to be fecund with possibility. Whether it be in the form of Captain Canuck or Stephen Harper, Canadian artists and prime ministers continue to imagine the Arctic fringes of Canada as ‘testing spaces’. Testing resolve. Testing occupation. Testing sovereignty. And testing security. The place of indigenous and northern communities within northern imaginaries can be paradoxical with governments in Ottawa emphasising the essential role such communities play in protecting sovereignty while at the same being accused of being indifferent to social, cultural and educational-health issues. The cartoon and comic examples revealed such ambivalence and the uneasy co-existence between southern and northern communities in Canada. In a forthcoming post, the first from one of our new editors, Rosanna White will review the presentation in more detail.

Finally, the programme turned to the critically acclaimed film Frozen River (2008).  Directed by Courtney Hunt, it is a low-budget production with a terse script addressing illegal migration, everyday insecurities, indigenous sovereignty, family breakdown, and post 9/11 suspicion of others in the geographical context of the St Regis Mohawk Reservation and the borderland communities along the St Lawrence river. A really interesting element of the film was the attention given to the material qualities of ice and snow. The frozen river refers to a tributary of the St Lawrence river and the key space in the film is the a point where residents living on the reservation are in effect able to cross between the US and Canada. But as the film explores the border itself is not so clear-cut and the ice while it seems to facilitate a transplantation economy of people and goods is also a source of ongoing insecurity. For those intent on smuggling people, including the two protagonists (a white woman and a Mohawk woman), the ice is a constant source of anxiety. It might facilitate mobility in some cases but in other points it literally swallows up the car on one particular fraught return journey. The river, as the film suggests, is not a static object – it changes shape, it melts, it refreezes, it is more accessible in some places than others. For those woman, and for those who smuggle in the boot of their car,  the precariousness of the ice seems to mirror their insecure lives. The police on either side of the border will not cross the river but the smugglers do – sometimes with deadly consequences. What might be intriguing, when juxtaposed with other ‘border films’, is to think further about how the US-Mexican border with its semi-arid environments offers up different kinds of social-material natures and how rock, sand, dirt and vegetation facilitate and frustrate those who either attempt to cross or patrol the border.

The evening was also intended to promote our new Msc Geopolitics and Security, and specifically the ongoing research by colleagues into the materialities of borders whether they be addressing rock, ice, water, wood and/or concrete. Klaus’s interest in Frozen River will take the form of a paper now in-press with Geopolitics, based on his sponsored Annual Lecture at the RGS-IBG conference in Edinburgh earlier this year.




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