‘Antarctica: A Year on Ice’ Enthralls

Casey St. Charnez - January 12, 2015

'A frozen excursion to the bottom of the world...'

The New Zealand documentary Antarctica: A Year on Ice is a breathtaking—often literally breathtaking—trek into a terra all but incognita, a frozen excursion to the bottom of the world.

Now playing at The Screen on the SFUAD campus, this 2013 production is the work of one man, New Zealander Anthony “Antz” Powell, who photographed, produced, and directed an astonishingly beautiful and arresting chronicle of how he spent a full 12 months in the most forbidding land on planet Earth.

Granted, I must confess up front that I do have a great personal fondness for the lore and the lure of the seventh continent, and although I’ve never been there and probably will never go, Powell’s film seems to capture fully this ice land’s heart of darkness and light like nothing I have seen before.

Larger than the USA, but populated by only 5,000 people at summer’s height (the opposite of our seasons, of course), the Antarctica of Byrd, Scott, and Amundsen abides…although a coda fearfully suggests that this may be its golden era, when all the nations operating some 30 bases interact and cooperate like nowhere else, but they share a dread that oil prospecting is most likely on the horizon, perhaps closer.

Before that inevitability, however, there is this most revealing movie, displaying not only the jaw-dropping beauty of the place in stunning time-lapse photography, but also delving into the quixotic personalities of adventurous types drawn to a spot where everything points north. (One woman observes that amidst this plethora of men, “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.”)

Powell’s sojourn into the Extremely Way Down South was not an easy one. Bitterly cold (it can drop to minus 135 degrees F.), bitingly windy (222mph, with Category 5 hurricane blasts at least once per season), this least hospitable place in the world caused Powell’s LCD displays to freeze up, forced his cameras to be heated by car batteries, and one eight-second scene of ice pressure ridges shape-shifting took five months to film.

Nevertheless, the panoply of what it takes to live there year-round is reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s similar effort, the 2008 Encounters at the End of the World, an estimable and entertaining entity in its own right. But the Anthony Powell work steps farther back—cautiously, as not to fall into a crevasse--and records lives unfolding against a panorama of white, blue, brown, gray, and black, as moon and sun streak across the sky, the latter of which utterly disappears below the horizon for two full months.

There is no crime on Antarctica. No indigenous people. No flora. The only fauna are avian and aquatic, all ferociously hardy. Into this remotest of scenes come humans, each there for their own reasons, from communications techs and machine mechanics to chefs, firefighters, even a retail shop manager. All of them end up longing for sunlight, hungry for steak and lobster, yearning to feel grass under bare feet. And over the long, long night they often dream of avocadoes.

But then they look up and are humbled by the dazzling curtains of the aurora australis (the “Southern Lights”), and they witness the stars rotating around a pole but a few hundred miles away. The few hundred who live and work at America’s McMurdo Station are within striking distance of Mt. Erebus, the world’s southernmost active volcano, itself named for the Greek place of darkness just before the entrance to Hades. Each visitor unexpectedly must summon vast reserves of stamina and courage of which they were previously unaware.

The same could happen to you while watching this remarkable, almost metaphysical saga of endurance and joy.

But as I was leaving, I heard one person say teasingly to another, “Well, are you ready to go?” and the man grumpily answered “No way.”
You fool.

PS: Delighted to report that The Screen now offers popcorn at the concession stand. A long time coming, but it’s gratefully received. Plus, it might be helpful to have something warm in your hands while you watch this cinematic Frigidaire.