With portions of the country under six feet of snow, and many other regions just beginning to feel the bite of winter (still technically three weeks away), one can always console oneself with the comforting apopthegm: “Well…it could be worse.” For one could be living on the bottom of the earth, where winter temperatures can reach -120 degrees fahrenheit and and at certain points of the year “night” can stretch on for weeks at a time. Werner Herzog took us there in his award-winning 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World, which focused mostly on the diverse investigations of scientists at several locations on Antarctica including McMurdo Station, Mount Erebus, the South Pole itself, and several temporary camps. But many stories remains to be told. Antarctica: A Year On Ice (released today in selected theatres throughout the country) offers a very different perspective.
Film-maker Anthony Powell is a year-round resident of McMurdo Station, America’s main Antarctic facility and the largest human settlement on the continent (The population of McMurdo is ca. 1,200 in summer, 700 in winter. Total Antarctic population in summer is ca. 5,000, distributed at 30 different internationally sponsored sites, all for the purposes of science.) Powell works as a radio technician, a job that routinely subjects him to the most brutal weather conditions on earth. What would be traumatic and maybe fatal to most of us, is just another day at the office for Powell. But unlike the biologists and volcanologists and such in Herzog’s movie, Powell’s important work comes more under the heading of “support”. He’s Antarctica’s “Wichita Lineman”, the guy who makes all internal and external communication possible. It’s no less important (or less dangerous) in the long run; none of these discoveries could be made without everyone on the team. Powell’s film focuses on the experiences of the people whose choose to do fairly ordinary jobs in the most extraordinary of terrestrial environments: a book-keeper, a fire fighter, a chef, a store keeper, an administrative assistant, an operations manager, a guy who works in a warehouse, and yes, a helicopter pilot (which in Antarctica is the equivalent of a taxi driver). Powell interviews these quiet adventurers extensively over the period of one year, showing their reactions to the changing of seasons, and the comings and goings of seasonal employees. These changes as you can imagine can be quite emotional — the station is cut off from the rest of the world for the entire winter. For long stretches during the worst months, people can’t even go outside, and have to make an extraordinary effort to hang on to their sanity. (Fortunately the traditional morale boosters seem to work: parties, contests, practical jokes, even a carnival). And there is the ultimate side benefit, and the reason they are all there: the beauty of the place, which Powell captures so wonderfully with his recording equipment: the absolute silence to be enjoyed just a short distance from the station, the charming wild life, the ice and rock formations, the starry sky (so clear that you can see many stellar features with the naked eye that are normally only visible with a telescope), and as the picture above hints, auroras. Consolation aplenty one might think for the loneliness and monotony of polar life. And lest you begin to get too bored, there’s the occasional terror of trying to stay alive during a winter storm. “There’s usually at least one Category Five storm per year,” observes Powell. Trying sitting one of THOSE out in your corrugated tin cabin!