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Antarctica: A Year on Ice comprises more than a decade’s worth of footage that director Anthony Powell whittled down to portray what it’s like to live on the bottom of the world for a full year. You’ll say “wow” more than once—the documentary’s views are astonishing, from the vast whiteness of the continent’s mountains and mostly unadulterated land to the multicolored southern lights billowing among more stars than most people will ever see.
Antarctica’s majesty, silence, and complete detachment from all the trappings of modern society kinda make you want to go there—to live. The documentary doesn’t focus on the wealthy travelers who cruise through, but the researchers, mechanics, technicians, and other workers who keep the (relatively) developed areas of the continent humming. An estimated 5,000 of them stay through summer; only 700 hunker down for the brutal winter. Once a final plane departs at the end of beach season (so to speak), those 700 are stuck for six months, missing funerals, births, and above-zero temperatures, regardless of if they eventually want to leave.
Powell got married on the continent while filming Antarctica and edits footage of his wedding into the film, with touches like a dress cobbled together from whatever the residents could find. The wedding and other activities make the day-to-day experiences of Antarctica seem almost normal. At least, that is, after you step off the plane and take your first breath, which a young firefighter named Andrew describes as “a sledgehammer to the face.” He also offers the no shit, dude comment that “you do make some sacrifices coming down here,” though the obviousness could be chalked up to what residents call “T3 Syndrome”—basically, growing a little dumber and suffering memory loss from prolonged exposure to such cold.
Of course, Antarctica is more than nice scenery, and Antarctica doesn’t hide the pitfalls of the cold continent. Hurricane-level winds whip snow so fiercely that it enters small gaps of bunkers and layers thickly inside. There’s four months of darkness: In one shot that looks like it was filmed at midnight, Powell says, “It’s the month of June, and it’s the middle of the day.” One pilot admits, “This is an awful place.”
Yet the continent’s primal state rewards those who spend time there with a renewed appreciation of not only nature, but life at its most basic. Andrew recounts going home and becoming stuck in traffic, leading him to regard the other drivers as “cattle.” He ended up returning to Antarctica. Another woman fell to her knees and wept when she saw the southern lights. “Seeing the sun is always an amazing experience,” Powell’s wife says. “It’s life-giving.”
Antarctica: A Year On Ice opens Dec. 5 at E Street Cinema.