Antarctica: A Year on Ice is a visually stunning, poignant film which captures the sharp divide between summer and winter on the ice continent. It has been Anthony Powell’s project for many years. Filmed over a decade, it captures the mindset which people living there experience during summer, when the sun never sets and winter, when the sun doesn’t come up.
There are only two seasons down below; summer and winter. Our journey begins in October, in which the summer season begins. Thirty research centres are scattered across Antarctica but it is McMurdo Station (the largest one) where we spend most of our time vicariously taking in the experience of living in summer, then winter. As you can imagine, the two seasons couldn’t be more different.
Many interesting facts are interspersed throughout the sweeping visual vistas. A penguin has intelligence on par with a chicken. Four months a year the sun never dips below the horizon, four months a year there is complete darkness. Polar T3 Syndrome is a common occurrence among those who remain over winter: it includes conditions like memory loss, cognitive impairment and mood disturbances.
I think the defining quality of Powell’s documentary which is so powerful is that he allows the camera to roll even when it can seem slightly unnecessary. One example sees a female fire fighter taking a call midway through an interview. She answers the phone, not out of rudeness but through devotion to keeping on track with work. Interviews can wait. Another time is when a few workers jump into frigid waters in the middle of winter. Who can forget seeing birds pecking away at the frozen corpses of seals or penguins? It leaves us feeling uncomfortable but for the better because it stays in reality.
Of course a big draw to the film is the scenery and there is plenty of it. Those pulchritudinous views of the night sky have stars so bright you’d almost think a torch is switched on. Plenty of wide sweeping shots take place to capture every open space. So big is Antarctica, some areas are yet to be treaded upon by man. A large mountain rests comfortably next to McMurdo Station. When the sun is out I can imagine it’d be the best view any working person could ask for.
We do meet a few McMurdo Station workers who stay on for winter. I can’t remember all their names but what is notable is how remarkably similar each one is in essence. All of them have an adventurer spirit, a love for winter, a desire to do the job and get along with each other. They are ordinary yet extraordinary.
As the plane arrives to take Powell back home there’s one final view of the ice continent. No one has matched Powell’s attention to detail. March of the Penguins was ok but it only captured a very small part of life down there. Antarctica: A Year on Ice captures the human element to it, with people revelling in an environment which for the time being is largely untouched. Hopefully it remains that way.