Why would someone want to work in an area as remote as Antarctica, let alone to live there? This question must be asked a lot to Anthony Powell 1, who often travels from his home in New Zealand to work there. He is not the only one. Around 5,000 people work there through the summer and 700 stay through the winter. Why would they stay? Powell answers that question with Antarctica: A Year on Ice; a documentary that spends a year in the life of the people who work all year at the South Pole. While other documentaries about Antarctica focus mainly on penguins (especially March of the Penguins), now the focus is on people. The result is everything beloved in documentaries; beautiful images; amusing stories; and a new perspective of life.
I grew up in the Northwest Territories so I can understand why people would want to get away from stalled engines, blistering winds and ice fog. This is a picnic compared to the compounds way down south. In the wintertime, the weather goes down to -60 degrees Celsius. How cold is this weather? Boiling water turns into steam the moment it gets thrown out the window. The storms are so strong even the smallest crease in a window can leave a room covered in ice. Considering weather is opposite in the southern hemisphere, inhabitants of the South Pole enduring 24 hours of night while we are enjoying the midnight sun.
With this weather, you can understand why that it took Powell 15 years to make this film. Even though he provided photography for the miniseries Frozen Planet, portraying a whole year of the continent in all its ranges proves a great challenge. He developed new cameras to endure the freezing weather, by using supplies as simple as twine. It may seem like a long trip for a short day at the beach, but it’s worth it for the beautiful images from the aurora borealis to a fast forward of frost. Even the scenes of people are beautifully shot whether they are on a ship breaking through ice or just a group of friends watching TV…outside. The most beautiful is the one Powell calls “a place of complete silence.”
At the centre of the film is the people themselves. Who are the people who would go all the way down south for work? There is a preconceived notion the residents consists mostly of scientists. Powell clears this up right away. A lot of them are everyday workers found in any city including mechanics, fire fighters, finance administrators and even a convenience store clerk. Powell’s fortunate to have a few average yet engaging people to share their life stories with him. There are details of life, from the reaction to the weather (“first breath hits like a sledgehammer”) to the policies of cargo (In the winter, everything must be shipped, even human feces”).
It’s when the planes leave for winter that we see the strength of the community. Though the few who stay admit to wishing they were on the plane, they find a close connection. Throughout four months of night, they are completely on their own with no way of escape. If you get sick, your only hope is the emergency staff in the compound. Despite, and because of the isolation, the people in these compounds find a common bond. Through the long nights, they find ways to amuse themselves (mini golf, books, etc.) and each other (a 48 hour film festival). There are some downsides to the isolation. Christine, a finance administrator, found out her father had died and was unable to attend the funeral. But they take most of it in stride, while making some amusing quips (On Love in Antarctica: “The odds are good and the goods are odd.”)
By the end, they are such a close community they feel territorial when new crews come for the summer. In a way, this community is most likely the reason to stay in a place seemingly unbearable. As one Antarctican would say “We have nations getting along better here than in the rest of the world.” Still, the end credits consist of them talking about the food they miss at home.
Bonus: We get to see an Antarctica Wedding. Wedding dress made from leftover drapes, a wedding ring made of ice and a ride on a tractor are what can be expected down there.
1) No, this is not the same Powell who wrote the Dance to the Music of Time series.