WATERVILLE — The history and culture of ice fishing in Maine is the focus of a documentary film that is premiering at the Maine International Film Festival.

Teaming up to produce “Hardwater” were Skowhegan Area High School graduates Ryan Brod, of Smithfield, and Daniel Sites, of Norridgewock, who now both live in Portland.

The collaboration was meant to be. Brod, a registered Maine guide, and filmaker Sites, a lover of the sport since age 2, had long wanted to make an ice fishing documentary.

“I grew up ice fishing,” said Brod, 28. “I knew how rich the culture is and thought, ‘Why the heck hasn’t someone made a film about this yet, in Maine or elsewhere?'”

In 2008, he ran in into Sites, now 29, in a Portland sandwich shop. They lived three miles apart as children and hadn’t seen each other since high school. And then they discovered they lived only two buildings apart in Portland.

Brod told Sites, who works for a film production company, about his documentary idea. Soon, they became a team, spending thousands of hours over three winters, traveling to lakes and ponds in 10 counties and interviewing dozens of ice fishermen, women and children.

“One question we were trying to have answered was ‘Why?'” Sites said. “Why do people go out in the middle of the winter in these sometimes brutal conditions to stand in a shack or out on the ice, waiting for that flag to pop up? What motivates people to do this?”

They learned very quickly that Mainers have a long tradition of ice fishing with family and friends. It is a bonding activity passed on through families, and that theme was pervasive through all the interviews he and Brod conducted.

“We went to East Grand Lake on the New Brunswick border four or five days in March for two years in a row,” Brod said. “We’d get on the lake a half hour before sunrise and stay on the lake ’til sunset.”

Ice fishing is an activity that is 90 percent inactivity, with quick bursts of excitement, he said.

“That’s when the flag goes up and you don’t know — it could be the biggest fish in the world,” he said. “It’s those quick moments of sort of sheer excitement that get you through those moments of quiet, slow, dull, cold. We wanted to mirror that in the film — all of a sudden the flag goes up and everyone rushes to the flag.”

Featured prominently in the film is 78-year-old Bob Foster, of the Monmouth area, who traditionally travels 300 miles from his home to fish Long Lake at the northern tip of the state. Diagnosed with cancer, Foster missed ice fishing for the first time in his life, underwent successful surgery, and returned to the ice a year later when he was filmed for the documentary.

“He has seen it all and done it all,” Sites said. “He is a great storyteller.”

Brod and Sites met others touched by cancer while making the film, prompting them to discuss the idea of working with organizations that support cancer efforts by showing the film and helping them raise money.

Brod and Sites spent many hours editing 110 hours of film footage into the 75-minute film, which was completed within the last couple of weeks. Brod researched ice fishing films and discovered some short films, but none that were feature length.

“As far as we know, this is the first full-length ice fishing documentary in the world,” he said.

In addition to documenting the changes that have occurred in ice fishing over the years and featuring colorful characters and their stories, the film also explores challenges to the ecosystem caused by environmental shifts and the introduction of invasive fish species in Maine waters.

Brod has a bachelor’s degree in social work from University of Maine and works at a mental health crisis center in South Portland. Sites has a bachelor’s degree in media studies with a concentration in video production and design from University of Southern Maine. He works for Lone Wolf Documentary Group but said he soon will work for “North Woods Law,” a television show on Animal Planet featuring Maine game wardens.

No stranger to the film festival, Sites helped make “The Rivals,” a documentary that followed the rivalry of the Cape Elizabeth and Rumford football teams and premiered at the festival in 2009.

“Hardwater” premieres at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Railroad Square Cinema and 3:30 p.m. Sunday at the Waterville Opera House. Brod and Sites plan to discuss the film with audiences after each screening.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

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