Antarctica: A Year On Ice (a film review by Mark R. Leeper) (2014).

November 24, 2014 | By | Reply More

This is a film about human survival in an alien world, but it is not Science Fiction. It is a documentary about the 5000 or so real people who come to the coldest continent and particularly about the one in seven who stay through the black winter and what the experience does to them. It is not just about being cold and in the dark. Strange things happen to the minds of people who face the bitter and the black. The movie was written, directed and filmed by New Zealander Anthony Powell who fell in love with the icy lands taking still pictures of it ten years ago.

The vistas of white and all the sights of the icecap make for an extraordinary and memorable film. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

Anthony Powell, a satellite telecommunications engineer and still photographer, has provided film for nature shows, exhibits, and the BBC series ‘Frozen Planet’. For his first feature film of his own he decided to spend an entire year in Antarctica and record his experience with special cameras, many of which he built for himself. He makes extensive use of time-lapse photography to catch the changing vistas. Time-lapse and still views of the huge vistas are real jaw-droppers.

Antarctica: A Year On Ice (a film review by Mark R. Leeper) (2014).

Antarctica: A Year On Ice (a film review by Mark R. Leeper) (2014).

Powell also includes wildlife footage of seals and especially penguins, for whom he seems to have a special fondness. However, for once the viewer may find the people of more interest than the animals. We would expect life to be different in Antarctica, but it is a far stranger experience than anyone who has not been there would probably imagine.

If one thinks of the sort of people one would find in Antarctica what comes to mind first are the scientists, perhaps doing research on ice melt or on the penguins. But a large proportion of the people there are in support positions. You need cooks, clerks, firemen, communications repair specialists and handymen. There was a notable absence in the film of anyone identified as a scientist. Powell’s emphasis is on what happens to ordinary people in this extraordinary environment.

The film is full of unexpected revelations. We know penguins can be cute, but they also can be disgusting when it comes to them living with penguin guano. With all the recent documentaries about penguins, only this one mentions guano problems. Apparently people who have lived with the cold and the isolation find they suffer from serious memory loss. Still, there is a family-like relation among the people who stay. They combine a spirit of adventure with a special kind of insanity.

The continent of Antarctica is covered by an icecap that is 25 million cubic kilometers of ice. That is about 6 million cubic miles. Ironically, it is covered with snow and is still a desert with less than six inches of precipitation a year. There is enough ice there that if it would melt it would raise the sea level more than 200 feet. Virtually anything that is needed to live on the ice has to be brought in from outside.

In the summer time, there are about 5000 people in Antarctica at any given time. Only one in seven stays through the winter and that requires a special breed of person. For them, the yearly routine is two months of days and nights, four months of constant sunlight, two months of days and nights and four months of constant dark. The isolation of winter has a strange disorienting psychological effect on those who stay.

Some form of memory deterioration seems common. There are storms weekly and most winters there is a hurricane force storm. Small cracks in window frames can cover a whole room with snow. One gets used to temperatures as warm as -40 degrees Celsius (or  40 degrees Fahrenheit) and as cold as -70 C (-94 degrees Fahrenheit) under skies of the green shimmering curtains of the Aurora.

It would be hard to imagine much of what Powell shows us. But no other documentary I have seen shows us the strange life on the ice cap. I rate it a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.

Mark R. Leeper
(c) Mark R. Leeper 2014

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Category: Films, MEDIA, Science

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