' Cinema Romantico: Antarctica: A Year on Ice

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Antarctica: A Year on Ice

“Antarctica: A Year on Ice” doesn’t quite contain the hymnal transcendence of Werner Herzog’s “Encounters at the End of the World” but then, you know, it wasn’t directed by Werner Herzog, an eccentric genius who’s always going into every documentary on the prowl for some sort of portal into another spiritual dimension that the laymen may or not be able to see through too. “Antarctica: A Year on Ice”, on the other hand, was directed by Anthony Powell, a genial New Zealander with an accent less portentous than ingratiating. In fact, his film has close to a replica of Herzog’s sequence involving the infamous lone penguin marching off to certain doom, shown here instead with a single seal, faraway from sea. And rather than freezing your soul with existential dread, Powell thoughtfully offers you a metaphorical blanket. It may be the coldest place on Earth, but this film wants to warm you up to Antarctica.

Powell is a semi-permanent resident of Earth’s southernmost continent, where the temperatures plunge amidst spectacular scenery. That scenery is very much front and center, as it always is in films centered around these remote five million square miles, but is ultimately less crucial to the story Powell is telling than the people in the story. He is someone who has not only summered in Antarctica – from October to February – but has wintered there – from February to October – a much less welcoming time when the sun slips below the horizon for months and severe winds howl. He reckons, however, that to truly see this place, to acquire a full understanding of it, you have to see it over the course of one year, and his own Year(s) on Ice become a testament to the people who have chosen to experience those 365 days with him.


Leaning strongly on talking heads and voiceovers of people in the midst of their daily routines, we are introduced to a gaggle of men and women who, according to one, came to Antarctica to refreshingly find themselves for the first time in their respective lives as the “majority” rather than the “minority”. We learn little of the lives they lead on their respective home continents or specifically what brought them here, and yet that comes across right, innately evoking the sensation of people who are all in on their present situation, who are here because they want to be here.

Life in Antarctica, it is made plain, is not all jaw-dropping hikes and mystical encounters with haunting southern lights. We’re here to work, is a variation on a familiar refrain cited by many of Powell’s interviewees, and, sure enough, we see them hard at work on mundane tasks, many of which appear no different than anywhere else in the world. A woman mans a desk beneath fluorescent lights. Another woman runs an Antarctic variation of the corner bodega. There are firefighters and mechanics and administrators. It’s like, say, Rosemont, IL, just a lot closer to the south pole. It’s not all penguins and snowscapes, emphasized to the point where you almost wonder if they are discouraging you to come.

Yet discouragement is not the point. Though it makes clear that life on the continent’s base camps cum towns can be horse latitudes of tedium, it never lingers in these potentially dark haunts. At times you almost wish it would linger. In the wintry months when the landscape is swathed in midnight twenty-four hours a day and delirium sets in, people recount their problems with a retrospective wistfulness, yet you can’t help but wonder if in the moment it amounts to something more......distressing. Powell simply won’t go there.

“Antarctica: A Year on Ice” is about the people but it’s also about the place affecting the people, and affecting them primarily for the best. It shapes them. There is some appendaged talk at the end reverting to ecological matters about how all this natural beauty will all be gone if we’re not careful, and so forth, which is not a wrong message, of course, but doesn’t feel quite convincing in this context. This isn’t a film about Antarctica just as “The Wizard of Oz” isn’t as much a film about Oz as it is about Kansas. It’s about being home.

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