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Michael Sigman

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Antarctica Documentary: A 'CathArctic' Experience

Posted: 12/17/2013 7:54 pm

This is not a review of photographer/director Anthony Powell's award-winning new documentary Antarctica: A Year on Ice, which premiered at last summer's New Zealand Film Festival and which will show at the Irvine International Film Festival next month.

If it were a review, I'd have to repeat superlatives like "stunning," "breathtaking"
and "astonishing" over and over to describe the film's visual depiction of world's coldest, harshest place. And that would be stunningly, breathtakingly and astonishingly boring. Almost as bad, I'd have to say "otherworldly" when referring to the "extraordinary" four months each year when the Sun never shines.

Furthermore, if this were a review I would need to get all vulnerable and expose my feelings about the deeply moving experience -- the "cathArctic experience," if you will -- of peering into the day to day lives (and here I'd have to add a phrase like "the joys and the sorrows") of the people who make our fifth largest continent hum.

Finally, if this were a review, I'd have to give the doc a four-star thumbs way up, which wouldn't mean much in a Facebook/Twitter-verse where everything is above average. Not to mention those annoying spoiler alerts, which you always read even though they ruin the surprises. [Spoiler alert: in this film, Ice is a character worthy of Oscar-buzz!].

Better to see Antarctica for yourself, sans reviews. Which I strongly urge you to do, even though this isn't a review.

If you're expecting a feature, you've also come to the wrong place. If this were a feature, I'd have to use words like "brilliant" and "revolutionary" to describe Powell, who gathered footage for over 10 years --including nine winters when Antarcticans live in near total isolation -- and had to invent gadgets an techniques so that, for instance, his eyelashes wouldn't be frozen into the frozen viewfinder of a frozen camera in temperatures as low as 60 below.

I'd also, if this were a feature, have to use words like "fearless" and "able to think out of the box" to describe Powell's wife and collaborator Christine, who after a trip to Antarctica in the late '90s abandoned life as a writer for the alternative newspaper OC Weekly -- for which she wrote a (insert superlative) cover story called "Welcome to the Ice" -- and kept going back until she'd created a truly alternative experience. (Disclosure: I was publisher of OC Weekly at the time.) And I'd have to use phrases like "love at first sight" (correction from Christine: "friends at first sight") and "romantic bliss" to describe how Anthony and Christine met, courted and married -- on the ice, of course.

Finally, if this were a feature, I would have to choose a trope and riff on it in a way that might or might not turn out to be cute. Perhaps I'd point out that while Eskimos famously have nine words for "snow," Antarcticans seem to have 900 meanings for "ice." They call themselves "Ice People" and, as you now know, they meet and marry "on the ice." "Brain freeze" is a literal term for when the winter weather slows down their minds, often reducing their verbal expressions to a series of protracted "uuhs." When your nose runs in the cold, you get ice boogers (aka "snotcicles"). Event-wise, there's the IceFest, a celebration of all things Antarctica, and the musical gala Icestock. For Ice People seeking spiritual succor, of course, there's Freezing Man. You get the idea.

What I do want to write about is, alas, impossible to write about. Because the beauty and the meaning of Antarctica -- the place and the documentary -- are too immense for words. By immersing yourself in the film -- no crossword puzzles or knitting allowed -- you can feel the expansiveness of a place where space/time is so radically different you might as well be on another planet. And you can become an observer of and a participant in the ever-changing strangeness of "being" -- whether that being is human, penguin, ice formation or aurora.

When she's not aiding and abetting her husband's enterprises, Christine immerses herself in another strange world: the world of knitting. With a friend she met on the ice, she's started a company called Antarctica Knitters. They sell patterns and hats and post information about life on the ice and the transient, thriving knitting community that exists there.

Though Antarctica: A Year on Ice is Powell's first full-length film, he has been putting forth his work in various formats for years, and his footage has appeared in many films and TV shows. His YouTubes have registered more than 4.5 million views.

For his next project, Powell is collaborating with a group of photographers from around the world to produce a work that will cover all seven continents. "I already have the footage for the hardest continent taken care of," he says dryly but not at all icily.

 

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