Life at the bottom of the world
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