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“Antarctica: A Year on Ice” for the brave and stouthearted

December 3, 2014

We may all think we have an idea of what “Antarctica: A Year on Ice” must be like, but thanks to this documentary’s compelling mix of time-lapse photography and everyday life in the Antarctic over the course of a single year, we now know better. These two elements are nicely interwoven to show the personal aspect, the interaction of human life and environment meeting in the extremes of each. It isn’t for everyone, the movie makes clear, but for those who have chosen it—or those whom this life has chosen—there is no other.

Other movies may focus on the stark reality of cold and ice, wind and sky, the importance of science and its discoveries in shaping or saving our planet, the trials and triumphs of geographical exploration. This movie focuses on the people there, and we the audience are let in just a little bit into their unique world. A great deal of it revolves around what we in the rest of the world call “work,” six days of it a week, almost all of it in a captive indoor environment, but for those interviewed who have come here don’t seem to mind. It’s all a part of the package they’ve chosen.

The year begins with the landing of a C130 as it ferries in hundreds of people, the supplies needed to sustain the polar stations over the course of a year. McMurdo looks from the air, and from within, like a mining station posted on a bleak landscape. The station itself never gets prettier, but generous views of the surrounding mountains, seas, ice and sky leaven the film. We meet the people at their work and play, but as the year rolls on and the spools unwind, some of them come to the fore. We get to know them, the firefighters, the administrators, the shop clerks, and get some sense of why they keep coming back. There’s a wedding with the whole base is invited, engagement ring carved from ice and the wedding rings made by the machine shop of brass. As the saying goes regarding finding a mate down here, “the odds are good but the goods are odd.”

In the autumn, August, the C130 takes away the hundreds of summer people, and leaves behind the 90 or so who will winter over, making good the damage done to equipment and keeping the station over. The long day ends with a brief and welcome few weeks where the sun sets and rises the way it does in the rest of the world, and the people here enjoy waking up with the sun. Until it rises no more. Cold drops to the -70s, the wind blasts at 220 mph, snow finds its way into the tiniest cracks and fills entire well sealed rooms with snow. Overhead the aurora curtains drape their mystic curtains, the stars wheel round with a clear view into the outer reaches of the universe that can never be known elsewhere. A curious mental lapse called T3 interferes with normal thought patterns. In the firehouse, the men stop talking about women and dream incessantly about food, anything fresh. During this long dark night they change, evolving into other selves, different from and irrevocably altered from the selves they left behind.

This is never more evident than when the new crop of summer people come, and the winterovers retreat into their rooms, away from the crowds, the inexperienced. Still, they miss their homes, their families, the births and deaths that happen during their self imposed exile. And when that exile is over, the things they crave most are the aromas of fresh fruit and vegetation, the feel of grass beneath their toes, a proper sleep in a proper bed. For those of us who live out our ordinary lives, it is a longing we can never share, or fully understand.

Director: Anthony Powell. (New Zealand 2013) 91 min.

Through December 11, 2014 at the Rafael Theater, 1118 Fourth Street, San Rafael, CA 94901
415.454.5813 Main Office
415.454.1222 Info-Line for Showtimes
rafaeltheater@cafilm.org
Review by David Hirzel. www.davidhirzel.net

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