Antarctica: A Year On Ice
In my eyes, documentaries should be designed to do one of two things. They should either offer a fresh spin on a well-known topic (like, say, the recently released Mitt) or they should inform us about a little-known one. When it comes to the little known, the extreme edge and the outer vestiges of human civilisation, you can go little further than the human inhabitants of Antarctica, one of the last great unexplored areas of our planet, a gigantic continent with a tiny population.
New Zealand filmmaker Anthony B. Powell takes us through a year in the life of those inhabitants, specifically the residents of America’s McMurdo Station, the largest settlement on the continent with a population of just over a thousand, and the nearby Scott Base, New Zealand’s comparatively smaller HQ in the region. Through seasons of constant sunshine followed by constant night, Powell shows us how people live in this harsh environment: how they adapt to the working conditions, how they form communities and how they deal with the loneliness of winter months. Beyond all that, Powell also shows off the majesty of Antarctica itself, through his specific passion for time-lapse photography. While the film was on release in some parts of the world last year, it is only at the recent Jameson Dublin International Film Festival that it has aired in Ireland.
Spoilers, of a sort I suppose, beyond this point. My condensed review can be found at The Write Club.
Powell opens his account with a look at the lush green farmland of his native country, where he hangs around cattle and practices his photography, a simple set-up for the crux of the production. But from there it’s to the desolation of ice and snow: save for Antarctica’s “Dry Valley’s”, white is the colour that dominates nearly all of A Year On Ice. The comparison between verdant green agriculture and icy wastes is something that really makes the point hit home about the impossibly alien aspects of Antarctica, with its malformed ice sculptures, extremes of weather and even areas that are defined in the documentary as being the closest thing Earth has to a Mars-like environment.
Powell is at frequent pains to mix up his narrative with glimpses of natures power near the South Pole, though it is not like we could ever forget. Select examples include opening doors to hurricane like conditions, witnessing entrances to buildings completely sealed by snow or the treachery of the ever shifting ice floes. The most memorable though, is a terrifying expedition to a remote communications outpost half way, a place that is battered by hurricane-strength winds at least once a week, suffering winds nearly incomparable to anywhere else on Earth once every winter. Powell travels here several times a year over land, which takes nearly a full day, over icy smoothness whose glass-like appearance will cause a certain terror in the audience. The outpost itself rattles and bangs in a cataclysmic fashion during the nights, when it sounds as if monsters are attacking outside, while entire living quarters become impacted with snow. It’s easily one of the most startlingly aspects of the Antarctic experience, though equally so might be the casualness of Powell’s reaction as he documents, typical of the people he lives with it. The inhabitants of these places simply learn to deal with it, coming to describe weather of well below zero as “alright”.
It’s the inhabitants that are the real focus of course. This is a portrait of civilisation on the very edge: opening scenes detail how the culture shock experienced by newcomers is more that they have to spend their days working in such a place, indoors, rather than simply gawking at their surroundings. It must be a surprise, to see sights firsthand that such a small amount of the human race will get to see, and then realise that your purpose in being there is the equivalent of office or warehouse work, for the most part.
Powell never goes into any real detail about why McMurdo or Scott actually exists, vaguely mentioning “scientific work” and “research”, which I could have heard a bit more on. It simply doesn’t appear to be his concern, the kind of work that his position is supporting, not taking part in directly. But in truth, he’s more interested in the rank and file which make up a huge proportion of these extraordinary people: the local fire brigade, the shopkeeper, the payroll staff or even his own responsibility of maintaining radio communications. McMurdo is, at the end of the day, a town, and a town like any other that requires such people to exist. Powell wants to know why he and they keep coming back to the Antarctic: he doesn’t really get a firm answer from anyone, with no one really being able to put the attraction into words beyond the expected platitudes. The sense of a sort of unspoken daredevil ethos would seem to be the real answer, that simply being there and surviving is a subconscious thrill for many, but the ones interviewed are mostly the hardcorem those who “overwinter” and then return for another go the next year. The majority do not return, indicating only a specific mindset, one happy with hard work mixed with isolation, will prosper in McMurdo and Scott Base.
More fascinating perhaps is the community spirit that is seen, though some potentially interesting avenues do get ignored. Powell found his wife in Antarctica, marrying her there in a cobbled together ceremony, a very sweet moment. There seems to be an unsurprisingly male-dominated aspect to McMurdo and Scott Base, and chances for fraternisation of the romantic variety appear to be few. I’ll admit I was interested in knowing whether such a situation caused its problems in McMurdo, regards how women find themselves being treated in such an environment – it rather reminded me of a National Geographic article I read a few years ago about female truck haulers in isolated male-dominated areas, like Alaska, who frequently are targeted for harassment and sexual violence. This also suddenly brings to mind the issue of law enforcement in such an area, with no sign of police or similar authority figures, beyond the fire brigade. Perhaps the subject was simply too dark for Powell to feel it was worth including, the story of him getting married there just popped such ideas into my head.
But there are plenty of other aspects of the community spirit to note. As the darkness begins to descend, the various bases across the continent take part in a short film festival to keep spirits up: this includes the British base creating a “battle” scene where the occupants of their base partake in mortal combat with a group of snowmen. Raucous New Years Eve parties take place: the countdown happens in broad daylight. And people take dips in icy pools of water, seemingly just for the hell of it. Such activities indicate that McMurdo and Scott Base are far more than just isolated research stations for the hardcore, but communities of their own accord.
This is all contrasted with the winter months as the population dips to severely low numbers. The vast majority do not want to stick around, fearful of the isolation and other problems. This is a time for the truly hardcore, those who appear to have an innate connection with the Antarctic wilderness, or maybe just a very human curiosity. It is a time of year marked by a longing for basic necessities, with a recurring desire by many being for foodstuffs like apples or avocado. Powell cleverly signals the depressing monotony of bad weather by repeatedly airing the common warning from weather stations to prepare for icy winds of hurricane strength. And then there is the dreaded “T3 Syndrome”, a reduction of the thyroid hormone triiodothyronine in the body due to the cold. It is a specifically arctic condition that causes short-term memory loss and the temporary impairment of some mental faculties: People forget what they are doing in the middle of doing it, can suddenly no longer carry out basic tasks without more concentration. The inhabitants tend to laugh it off in a self-deprecating manner, but they can’t hide an obvious unease that comes with living at the bottom of the world, enshrouded by night for several months.
The winter months give one last shock for those who suffer through them, when there is uncomfortableness with the return of summer and the return of crowds. For those who stayed over winter, feelings of aggressive annoyance are common when suddenly having to queue for food in a canteen again. One fire brigade member takes to his room to eat alone when faced with such feelings, and is soon joined by several of his over-wintering friends. Such reactions are simply fascinating, a great study on the psychological effects of both isolation and a resulting close-knit feeling with a very select group of people.
That kind of theme is carried on into the final shots, which focus on New Zealand cities that Powell films upon his return from another year long stretch in Antarctica. As with the opening shots, the contrast with the ice of the South Pole could not be more deliberate and startling: these urban landscapes are the heart of human civilisation, and the likes of McMurdo and its surrounding environs really do seem rather alien when put next to it. But they have their own little bit of civilisation too, and an allure that will keep some of the people there coming back again and again.
The other side of A Year On Ice is the visual, and Powell does a spectacular job with some simple camerawork techniques. And “time-lapse” is the perfect technique to showcase some of the wonders of Antarctica, whether it is the rapid sunrises and sunsets, or the beauty of aurora borealis, that haunting atmospheric phenomenon that causes people at McMurdo to drop to their knees upon first glimpsing it.
Powell also uses simple pans to capture as much as he can, in 360 degree turns around McMurdo or straight up shots of the revolving skyline, sometimes with a trail effect added so that we really can grasp the magnitude of the star filled expanse, in an area that probably has no equal on the planet for observation. So slow moving is the natural activity of Antarctica that time-lapse is a actually a necessary requirement: only then can you appreciate how the icy flows outside McMurdo constantly change or how easily buildings become covered in snow barriers. This carries through to the artificial as well, as Powell uses the same technique to showcase the scramble to unload supplies before winter comes.
It’s brilliant largely because such a technique is, in itself, almost otherworldly to our eyes, creating something as close to visual time travel as you are ever likely to get, a wonderful use of technological sophistication in a place that is as free of it as anywhere else.
In a vista that is largely untouched by man, the camerawork is stylish, enrapturing and majestic, capturing perfectly the amazing beauty of Antarctica even with its associated harshness. I do use the words “icy wastes”, but there is a pristine-like to the whole thing to, the idea of a vista that is as empty and soundless as you can get. But Powell is careful not to let these images become too dominant in his narrative, which he himself does skilful voiceover work for. An endless stream of such images would soon become tedious, but the right balance is found between that and the human element previously mentioned. Throughout this condensed look at an Antarctic year, Powell shows us as much as he can, from lasting day to lasting night.
Wildlife gets its turn in the spotlight in some interesting ways as well. Powell contrasts the typical image of Penguins cavorting around the sea with looks at the dead bodies of those who don’t survive the harsh conditions as well as mentioning the horrific smell of their waste, the sort of thing that your standard documentary does not feel like noting. This is a refreshingly honest look at the perils that wildlife can face in the wild, not least the simple possibility of getting stranded on land. One of the few heartbreaking scenes is of a lost seal crying for help around McMurdo, doomed to starve or die or exposure, with nearby humans unable to do anything: the standard ethical guidelines for such situations prohibit it, as they aren’t directly responsible for the seals fate, who could well become a life-saving meal for something else. It can be hard to watch, but it speaks to the reality of life in such a place, that comes with moments of terrible horror along with beauty.
The wonderful score of A Year On Ice is worth noting, being funded by Kickstarter after Powell had assembled his footage, providing a suitable auditory backdrop for the entire affair, one that is far more than you might expect. It’s a really professional and evocative job, and the sort of model for financing it should be an avenue that others look to in the future for such productions.
I found Powell’s documentary to be both fascinating in the way that it approached the people of Antarctica and their reasons for being there, and intensely evocative and moving in its patient time-lapse filming style. It showcases the power of international co-operation to a great degree, with some moments towards the end dedicated to fears that such an effort might one day collapse. The peoples of the world, working together, have established this presence in Antarctica, this little bit of civilisation, some of the last great pioneers of exploration. They could not do it with an intrinsic faith in their fellow man, or the help of the various nationalities in other bases all around. They might be American, New Zealanders, British, Russian, Chinese or even Pakistani (seriously), but they are all part of an Antarctic community, experiencing the same travails and dangers, the same unique challenges, the same ethos of simply wanting to exist on this fringe. The visual side is spectacular enough in its own right, but it is the human element that makes A Year On Ice the excellent film that it is, two sides of this one coin that together provide an interesting look at this outpost of humanity, shining a light on numerous aspects of what makes the place so enticing and implanting it all in a narrative that never really loses its captivating nature.
(All images are copyright of Antzworks).