Quentin Tarantino pushed for “Frozen River” as the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival two years back and was effusive in his praise. At first glance the film is as far from Tarantino turf as Alaska is from Tahiti, but rumors had it that the struggling single-mom factor got to him. (Tarantino himself was raised by a single mother.)

“It was so out of the blue for me,” says “Frozen River” director/writer Courtney Hunt. “If anything, I thought he would hate my film.” Hunt’s eyes light up as she recalls the excitement and sense of triumph, and she adds: “Sundance was especially important to me because I could not have lived if it weren’t for independent films. It’s like food and oxygen to me, an integral element of my life.”

Hunt was born and raised in west Tennessee, a long way away from the windswept iciness of the St. Lawrence River, where the film is set. Still, she says the landscape was not entirely unfamiliar. “Where I grew up, the land was completely flat and there was a broad river, it often felt like, ‘So where’s the civilization?’ As for the U.S.-Canadian borderland along the St. Lawrence, my husband is from that area. Every time I went to his hometown, I was struck by the emptiness of the landscape, largely unchanged throughout the years.”

Hunt adds that the region has neither prosperity or a whole lot of happiness. “The town has one main industry and that’s the prison,” she says. “People either work there, or they’re serving time there. It’s pretty terrible.”

Hunt wondered about the people who lived there, especially what it was like for low-income women. “There has been a smuggling culture along the St. Lawrence since Prohibition,” she says. “Back then it was bootlegging liquor, a little while back it was cigarettes and now the commodity of the moment is illegal aliens.”

The “Frozen River” story was inspired out of an encounter with local female smugglers (of cigarettes, not aliens) and Hunt then created the two women characters.

“First off, I thought about the racial tension. Both Ray and Lila are racial — Ray because she doesn’t know how to be any other way, and Lila because she’s been taught since birth to mistrust white folks. By the time they feel like moving past the prejudice, other problems step in and they realize it’s no longer important.”

Hunt says that between the two women, she feels “closer” to Ray because she needs more help. “I think that no one in the audience could like her or relate to her. She doesn’t have those nice, feminine qualities that make people want to rush to her aid. Ray has just never had the luxury to be nice,” she says

Still, in the end Ray undergoes a transformation. Hunt laughed: “Yes. I worried about that. I didn’t want any change to be overly dramatic because that would make it false. As it is, I think Ray’s fierceness remains, but while that had once been a cover for her insecurities, in the end it signals a new found strength. I liked that.”

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