‘Ice Mother’: Finding Self and Freedom Through Freezing Waters

By Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
April 26, 2017 Updated: April 26, 2017

NEW YORK—Director Bohdan Slama is fascinated with families; he has made five feature films, and every one of them deals with family relations at their core.

“It is my life theme,” said Slama, whose latest film “Ice Mother” is playing at the Tribeca Film Festival. “It’s the foundation of human relationships; a good family gives people a sense for good relations with other people, which seems to me to be the most important.”

The impetus for “Ice Mother” was the thought of the many “infantile adults” in today’s world, children who never seem to grow up and take responsibility for themselves. Slama finds it to be a dangerous phenomenon. For Slama, “mothers keep the world together,” and the thought of mothers suffering their infantile adult children seemed disastrous. It sent him searching: What kind of relationships would be needed to help such a mother find freedom?

"Ice Mother."
“Ice Mother.” (Negativ Film Productions)

It took two years to piece together his main character, Hana, the “good soul” of her family. At 67-years-old, she is a widow who still has to take care of her two sons—both fully grown adults whose weekly dinner visits highlight their selfishness more than any sense of caring for their mother or each other. Hana lets herself be taken advantage of, is timid and subservient, and cut off from the world as such. Until she stumbles across a man who seems to be drowning in freezing waters one winter. 

Hana (played by Zuzana Kronerova) and her 8-year-old grandson Ivanek (Daniel Vízek) help the man, Brona (Pavel Novy), out of the water, and are introduced to the strange world of ice swimming.  

A community of people—poor, rich, old, young, it doesn’t matter once you’re in the water—meet up regularly to swim in the freezing river and hold regular competitions. Even among competitors there is support. It’s an entirely different world. 

Slama tried ice swimming himself. “It’s really great,” he said. “I am not like these guys in the movie who are used to swimming one kilometer in this cold water. I stayed like three minutes and that’s all.”

“It’s funny, because coming out the cold water you feel so hot,” Slama explained. In the freezing waters, your sense of feeling retreats as your blood and body heat converge to protect your heart and organs in the center of your body. Even experienced swimmers feel fear every time, and there’s always a chance you can pass out in the cold.

But as you come out of the water, “it’s like a baby coming out to the world and first looking,” Slama said. “It leaves you feeling unbelievably good, because blood is returning back, and it brings endorphins.”

It brings to mind ancient rituals of bathing in or dousing yourself with cold water as a sign of life and rejuvenation. The Japanese have misogi, standing under a cold stream of water to expel evil and negative influences; there is a Slavic ritual of cutting into a frozen river and standing there to call for spring; there is an old Orthodox Christian ritual of plunging into cold water blessed by priests for cleansing, to name just a few. 

Hana, led by the hand by Brona, dips her toes into the world until she starts to open up. Ivanek too finds a community and good examples of relationships he hadn’t known with his dysfunctional family. 

But ultimately, the community isn’t the most important thing Hana finds. After plunging into the icy waters, she, too, comes out the other side with a renewed sense of feeling.