Life at the bot­tom of the world

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images -

Antarc­tica: A Year on Ice, doc­u­men­tary, rated PG, The Screen, 3.5 chiles At one point in this film about life on the south po­lar con­ti­nent, Chris­tine Pow­ell ap­pears in a foyer area. She wants to show the view­ers some­thing. She says it’s a lit­tle windy out­side and then she asks, “Are you ready?” She yanks open the door to the out­side, and there is a mael­strom. It’s like somebody in a sci­encefic­tion movie open­ing a door onto some bizarre un­der­world storm. It is just rag­ing out there. Pow­ell has trou­ble get­ting the door closed again.

The mo­men­tary scene from Antarc­tica: A Year on Ice en­cap­su­lates one as­pect of life at “the bot­tom of the world”: the fury of the weather, es­pe­cially at cer­tain times of year. But there is also great beauty in this place that is both frag­ile and bru­tal. Be­sides the ex­panses of sea and land, the moun­tains and mas­sive glaciers and weird, jut­ting ice shapes, there are the mes­mer­iz­ing skyscapes en­livened by col­or­ful ef­fects: the aurora aus­tralis.

The doc­u­men­tary, pro­duced, di­rected, and filmed by An­thony Pow­ell, with as­sis­tance from his wife, Chris­tine, is set at two re­search bases in south­ern Antarc­tica — New Zealand’s Scott Base and the United States’ McMurdo Sta­tion. We first see the film­maker among dairy cows in his na­tive New Zealand. He re­lates that he taught him­self to use a va­ri­ety of cam­eras and then built some equip­ment him­self to help ev­ery­thing func­tion in ex­treme cold and wind. And he talks about his fascination with time-lapse pho­tog­ra­phy.

Next we see him stand­ing alone and, as the cam­era pans back, re­duced to a tiny fig­ure in a vast, vast po­lar land­scape. In or­der to re­ally un­der­stand Antarc­tica, he says, one must spend a full year there. The pop­u­la­tion of the south­ern­most con­ti­nent is about 5,000 in the sum­mer and less than 700 in the win­ter.

Sud­denly we are view­ing Antarc­tica from outer space. It is an awe­some sight. Then we see peo­ple packed into a huge U.S. Air Force trans­port plane to McMurdo Sta­tion. We may think that those liv­ing in Antarc­tica are sci­en­tists, and there are, of course, sci­en­tists at the re­search sta­tions, but Pow­ell, a satel­lite telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions en­gi­neer, fo­cuses on the other peo­ple who work there — the me­chan­ics, ra­dio en­gi­neers, crafts­men, he­li­copter pi­lots, cooks, and store clerks. It’s a pretty tightknit com­mu­nity.

When the last plane leaves, ev­ery­one must stay for six months. There is no way out. We hear a sev­ereweather alert on the ra­dio, and it is se­vere in­deed: 123 miles-per-hour winds. Chris­tine Pow­ell braves the out­doors to open a ve­hi­cle door that it is not just full of snow but packed with it. With hur­ri­cane-force winds, bliz­zard­ing snow finds easy ad­mit­tance into the thinnest open­ings in build­ings and ve­hi­cles. The mu­sic changes. We see the film­maker and Chris­tine look­ing out on the wild, clean, bru­tal land­scape, and it is beau­ti­ful — even strangely ro­man­tic.

Pow­ell of­fers lots of time-lapse seg­ments, in­clud­ing those of the clouds, the move­ments of ice on the sea, and the light across the land­scape. Much of it is awein­spir­ing, but the film­maker’s ap­par­ent com­pul­sion to speed up na­ture can also be a tad ir­ri­tat­ing. There are won­der­ful shots of the res­i­dent Adélie pen­guins, but then they’re also shown wad­dling at an un­nat­u­rally fast pace. There are amaz­ing sights and sounds as we look down at the fore­deck of an ice­breaker sup­ply ship — in this case, the time-lapse pho­tog­ra­phy that shows the ship’s un­load­ing is amaz­ing.

At the end of April, the sun sets for four months. In June and July, there is to­tal dark­ness, and those who have to work out­side do so in tem­per­a­tures of about 40 de­grees be­low zero. Peo­ple play games, watch TV, and en­gage in snow­board­ing and feats of bal­anc­ing. They also fan­ta­size about fresh cream and av­o­cado. Peo­ple miss rain and the smell of dirt, be­cause the soil here is all vol­canic.

Then there is Po­lar T3 syn­drome. One man feels like some­thing is amiss and re­al­izes he’s put his shoes on the wrong feet. He sits down, takes them off, and puts them on again, but after a while re­al­izes he put them on the wrong feet again. Another fel­low can’t re­mem­ber if t comes after s in the al­pha­bet. The hu­mor of such oc­cur­rences is de­picted, although the ob­vi­ous dan­ger to peo­ple in a con­fused men­tal state in this se­vere habi­tat is not ad­dressed.

Each day in Au­gust, twi­light be­gins to creep up at the edge of the sky. This is the cold­est time of the year. Then, grad­u­ally in­creas­ing its ap­pear­ance ev­ery 24 hours, the sun re­turns. Once day­light has fully re­turned, a big air­plane brings new peo­ple, full of won­der and noise and en­ergy. The win­ter­ers find the change be­wil­der­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence both glee and re­vul­sion at the new­com­ers.

We see Pow­ell, sit­ting and look­ing out on a vast, aus­tere ex­panse and eat­ing an ici­cle like a car­rot. His wife tells us, “I def­i­nitely long for it when I’m away.” But they have not been among the more tem­po­rary res­i­dents: The film was 10 years in the mak­ing. Their in­ter­vie­wees are a mem­o­rable col­lec­tion of per­son­al­i­ties — and th­ese are just or­di­nary peo­ple who share a spirit of ad­ven­ture and, es­pe­cially in the case of the win­ter­ers, an abil­ity to tol­er­ate and even revel in iso­la­tion, cold, and howl­ing, thun­der­ing wind.

— Paul Wei­de­man

Bravers of the el­e­ments

Film­maker An­thony Pow­ell

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