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August 14, 2015

Antarctica: A Year on Ice

by Franz Patrick


Antarctica: A Year on Ice (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Werner Herzog’s “Encounters at the End of the World” is one of my favorite documentaries because it is able to capture the sense of wonder, mystery, and majesty of Antarctica. Anthony Powell’s “Antarctica: A Year on Ice” is its less philosophical and poetic cousin, its focus more on the people living in two research bases: McMurdo Station (United States) and Scott Base (New Zealand).

Powell spends an entire year in a continent that contains about five thousand people during the summer and less than five hundred during the long winter. It must be a scary, lonely place—especially when there is only darkness outside for months—yet I still wish to go there and experience the lifestyle of the pioneers.

The documentary offers a handful of memorable images. There is a seal who gets lost. Instead of making its way to the ocean with its group, it happens to reach one of the research bases. It will die inevitably if it does not find a food source, and yet people who see the animal are forbidden from helping it. They must let nature take its course. Equally compelling, in a different way, are images of various categories of snowstorms. I thought Category 1 was already scary and amazing. And then there was Category 3.

Powell makes a point that the Discovery Channel does not entirely show the truth about the place. Here, we see corpses of penguins being picked on by other birds. Some of these mangled bodies quite dry but still recognizable, the others require a closer inspection. But perhaps most surprising to me is the image of a small river of excrement that come from five hundred thousand penguins. I wished the filmmaker had elaborated on the stench. After all, it is a documentary unafraid to get down and dirty.

We hear from different people about their personal experiences on the ice, from store clerks, warehouse managers, to firemen. Each one is expressive and provides at least one interesting perspective when asked a specific question. Though they come from different backgrounds with different expertise, as they speak we could not help but search a commonality: What is it that attracts them to this place? They provide answers—practical answers like type of personalities or what they hope to achieve—but I was more interested in spiritual answers. Cue in the small but memorable sequence where the camera simply sits on one spot, looks around, and there is complete silence.

The movie offers something special, at least in my eyes, because it manages to relate the largely untouched land to the regular people who live there—not just scientists or members of the military. There is a warmth to the documentary, despite the endless terrain of snow during the winter, which makes it highly watchable. I could easily watch another hour of the subjects talking about whatever it is that comes to their minds.

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