Antarctica: A Year on Ice
The Road Rarely Taken
“Look how the floor of heaven is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold . . .”
—The Merchant of Venice, act 5, scene 1
These are the people who choose alternative paths—people whose cold-nipped faces blaze with life and a self-deprecating sense of humor over their love affair with a place that, in winter time, brews the equivalent of a Category 1 hurricane every week.
The sun sets for good in March and doesn’t rise again until September, but in the long Antarctic night, the floor of heaven seems close enough to touch. A new documentary Antarctica: A Year on Ice seeks to share what it’s like to spend an entire calendar year in the coldest place on earth.
Most people never go to Antarctica. A handful travel there to work in the summer (October–February) and of those handful only a select few are crazy enough to maroon themselves in darkness and extreme subzero temperatures for six long months. New Zealander and longtime Antarctic communications technician Anthony Powell taught himself filmmaking, and even hand-engineered camera equipment strong enough to withstand the Antarctic winter in order to share his rare “winter-over” experiences with the wider world.
Antarctica’s popular image of a land dominated by scientists, penguins, and a handful of daring National Geographic photographers overlooks a significant population of support staff: firefighters, mechanics, administrative staff, and technicians. Powell takes viewers along for a full year of life as a support staff worker in McMurdo Station, the main American base of operations in Antarctica. The film focuses particularly on the “Winters,” as they call themselves, exploring the physical and emotional toll of living isolated from the rest of the world as they keep the scientific bases functioning long after the majority of the seasonal staff has departed for warmer climes.
In interviews with a retail clerk, a dispatcher, a cafeteria worker, and many others, a picture gradually takes shape. These are normal people, not experts with exotic degrees. They also hum with a slightly offbeat vitality. These are the people who choose alternative paths—people whose cold-nipped faces blaze with life and a self-deprecating sense of humor over their love affair with a place that, in winter time, brews the equivalent of a Category 1 hurricane every week. (Category 5-type storms only hit a couple of times each winter. No biggie.)
The many repeat tours of duty among the Winters and Summers are particularly amazing, since—as may people point out in the documentary—they’ve come to Antarctica to work. They arrive off the plane, and “Ivan the Terra Bus” carts them into McMurdo Station, where they go to work. And sleep. And watch the same movies repeatedly. And work. There are very few—if any—opportunities to take in the glorious scenery, either because of the danger or because of the limited resources available for sight-seeing. So, to keep active and avoid going stir-crazy, their antics seem like something you’d see in a college dorm—albeit, one equipped with carabiners, warehouse rafters, and grown adults willing to swing into a tower of empty boxes blindfolded.
Fortunately, audiences get to escape via helicopter-cam into the spectacular mountains and silent valleys—a landscape unlike anywhere else on earth. Powell’s down-to-earth touch as a filmmaker strikes a careful balance between philosophical or romantic musings and a keen desire to keep things real. Even after the obligatory funny penguin scenes, Powell is quick to remind viewers that in real life, a penguin colony is horrendously smelly and littered with penguin corpses.
He also addresses the climate-change elephant as the fact of life it is for everyone involved in Antarctic work, whether by showing roads rendered impassible by unsound ice or by showing the sublime sunsets that damaged ozone layer produces. One retail clerk reflects that these may be the “golden years” for Antarctica. So many nations playing together nicely all in the name of science. Where else in the world do people get along on this level? The woman adds that someday—someday—the treaty preserving Antarctica for science will end, and someone will discover oil, and the glorious silence, and clarity, and peace of the place will be over. Suddenly, their urgent desire to go back year after year makes a little more sense.
And oh, the stars. The floor of heaven is thick inlaid indeed.
Antarctica: A Year on Ice is rated PG for mild thematic elements and language.