I have always found Antarctica to be a profoundly interesting place. From the fact that it (or the Atacama Desert in Perru, depending on the source) has the driest place on earth (the Dry Valleys), that it’s the home of five breeding species of penguins or that it has just two season, winter and summer in which winter has 24 hours of dark for 6 straight months and summer has 24 hours of daylight for the other six months. Couple that with the harshest landscape and weather on earth, one might ask why in the hell does anyone ever go there. That’s precisely what Anthony Powell does in his fantastic documentary Antarctica: A Year on Ice.
That Powell himself is someone who has wintered over in Antarctica several times (incidentally, it’s where he met his wife and married her), he has a fresh perspective and great access to tell his story as well as the stories of the many others who also winter over. One important thing to keep in mind is that at a certain time each year when winter descends, no one is able to leave Antarctica. They are stuck there, for better or worse, because the weather is so drastic and extreme. Through many interviews with other inhabitants there (mostly at McMurdo Station, the largest of the settlements on Antarctica), Powell tells a fascinating story of the the long, cold months spent in darkness. He is able to capture a lot of the nuances that the residents on Antarctica experience that most of us have never and likely will never see – I’m thinking mostly of when Powell, who is a satellite tech, goes to one of the field bases after a massive storm has rolled through and shows the bunkhouse of the outfit, which has been completely filled with snow despite that extreme precautions that are undertaken to weatherproof the buildings. This one example is testament to the unpredictability and the unchecked nature of the weather there. And this looms large throughout the time on the ice (because that’s exactly what the bulk of Antarctica is – ice, very very thick ice).
Powell doesn’t address the dangers of climate change on Antarctica, because that isn’t the aim of the film. Had he, it would have been out of place. This film is a portrait of the people who choose to spend their time in a place that maybe a handful will ever live and experience what they do. This film is a complete contrast to Werner Herzog‘s Encounters at the End of the World. They both provide a counterpoint to one another, but are also companion pieces in a sense. Whereas Herzog fills his spaces with heady, philosophical diatribes meant to increase one’s thinking about their place in the world, Powell‘s film tells it like it is and asks us as the viewers to put our experiences up against those of the residents of Antarctica and reconcile similarities and differences between the lifestyles.
Powell‘s film is flush with incredible time-lapse photography and presents us with as accurate a depiction of the Antarctic winter as I could imagine. Stunning doesn’t really do it justice. The shots of the stars alone are so mindbendingly beautiful, that I had to ask myself whether or not what I was seeing was real. Powell really outdid himself. His voice-over narration is informative and to the point, quite different from Herzog‘s asides, and in this case, that’s okay.
I will admit that Antarctica is a place I have longed to visit for the better part of my adult life. Sara Wheeler‘s book, Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica was my first introduction to life on the loneliest continent and hooked me. Powell‘s film amplifies that longing and who knows, perhaps I’ll end up there someday. In the meantime, I’m incredibly happy that a film like this exists to hold me over and to show others the glory, danger and excitement Antarctica holds. If you’re interested, here is a place to check out jobs on Antarctica with the US Antarctica Project.
Thanks to the good people at Music Box Films for releasing this film. It hit theaters on November 28.