'Antarctica: A Year on Ice': Film Review

Antarctica: A Year On Ice Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Music Box Films

Antarctica: A Year On Ice Still - H 2014

Bring a sweater to the theater

Anthony Powell's documentary chronicles the conditions faced by people working at the bottom of the planet

It's safe to say that few wedding videos are as unusual as the one in Anthony Powell's documentary about life on a research station in the continent located on the bottom of the planet. The filmmaker met his wife while working there, and their nuptials included the bride's father giving away his daughter via telephone to a man he barely knew. It's but one of the many fascinating moments in Antarctica: A Year on Ice, which depicts the simultaneously grueling and wondrous conditions faced by those intrepid workers.

Filmed over the course of 10 years with cameras that were specially modified to work in subzero temperatures, the documentary chronicles the inevitably close-knit communities of scientists, technicians and other workers that inhabit the roughly 30 permanently manned bases on the continent. During the summers the population swells to a relatively grandiose 5,000 people, and then is reduced to some 700 hardy souls who stay on during the winters featuring months of unending darkness.

Although it features no shortage of dazzling arctic vistas and otherworldly sights, the film takes a decidedly prosaic approach to documenting life in these highly artificial circumstances. While venturing into the bleak landscape, the filmmaker's very practical advice is to "never confuse your pee bottle with your water bottle."

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The interview subjects detail the often brutal conditions, such as the near-weekly storms during the winters that are the equivalent of hurricanes. While boredom in not exactly a problem — there's far too much work to do — the lack of sunlight and fresh produce, among many other things, very much is. One worker rhapsodizes about the prospect of someday eating an avocado again, while another confesses to feeling unbearable anger over having to wait in a cafeteria line after a group of new workers arrives. Unable to leave the station for months at a time, they describe their intense feelings of desolation over having to miss the funeral of a parent or the birth of a nephew.

Attention is naturally paid to the region's animal residents, although the penguins are depicted in less-than-adoring terms as Powell describes their unbearable stench and the fact that their corpses take forever to decompose in the frozen environment. More poignantly, a lost seal is seen forlornly crawling across the frozen landscape while the workers, forbidden to intervene, can do nothing but watch as it heads toward certain death.

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The filmmaker is a little too enamored of time-lapse photography, indiscriminately using it not only to record natural phenomena, but also the workers going about their daily routines. And the often plodding narration is far more workmanlike than inspired. But at its best Antarctica: A Year on Ice vividly depicts a way of life that most of us, fortunately or not, will never get to experience.

Production: Antzworks
Director/screenwriter/producer/director of photography: Anthony Powell
Executive producer: Anthony Biello
Editor: Simon Price
Composer: Plan 9

Rated PG, 92 minutes