Women Directors: Hunt, Courtney–Frozen River

Written and Directed by Courtney Hunt, “Frozen River,” the 2008 Sundance Film Fest prize- winning drama, tells the story of Ray Eddy, an upstate New York trailer mom, who smuggles illegal immigrants from Canada into the United States over a Mohawk Indian Reservation.

A timid and reserved woman, Ray begins smuggling illegal immigrants as the only way to keep her family together after her husband takes off with the familys down-payment for their new doublewide dream home. In order to make the money in time, Ray teams up with a Mohawk smuggler, Lila Littlewolf, and the two begin making runs across the frozen St. Lawrence River carrying illegal Chinese and Pakistani immigrants in the trunk of Rays Dodge Spirit.

At the onset, Ray and Lilas partnership seems doomed to failure as Lila normally doesnt work with whites, but Lilas eagerness to get her baby son back from her mother-in-law who has stolen him, lead Lila and Ray into an uneasy partnership.

Director’s Statement

I wrote this film after learning about women smugglers at the border of New York State and Canada who drive their cars across the frozen St. Lawrence River to make money to support their kids. The risk involved compelled me to write a story, not only about smuggling at the northern border, but also about what life circumstances would lead someone to take such chances.

What I discovered was that a mothers instinct to protect her children is more powerful than any cultural,political or economic boundary line. Melissa Leo (Ray) and Misty Upham (Lila) embodied the unheralded struggle of single mothers of all ethnicities who are living on the edge.

Shot on the Sony Vericam in 24 days, in sub-zero weather in Plattsburgh, New York with a barebones budget, the production of Frozen River depended on many things going right. Weather was a constant factor and the crew braved fierce cold and night shoots to get the footage and make our days. The actors, many of whom were first timers, showed commitment on the level of professionals and the professionals, especially Melissa Leo, led them with generosity of spirit and great skill.

The other enormous factor was the participation of the people of Plattsburgh, New York, who supported us in a thousand ways and ultimately gave Frozen River a home.

Courtney Hunt’s Bio

Born in Memphis, Tennessee. Courtney Hunt holds an MFA from Columbia Universitys Film Division. Her thesis film, “Althea Faught,” a short about the American Civil War, which she wrote and directed, was purchased by PBS in 1996 and aired on American Playhouse. It screened in film festivals including the Tribeca First Look Series, Edinburgh International Film Festival, Montreal Festival des Film du Monde, and the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival.

The film also won Colombias first Prize in Directing from New Line Cinema. Hunts second short film, FROZEN RIVER, premiered in the New York Film Festival in September, 2004 and went on to screen at other festivals, including Los Angeles, Nashville, Williamstown, and the American Indian Film Festival.

Hunt holds a law degree from Northeastern University and a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College.