“Antarctica: A Year on Ice” is not your normal nature documentary. Shot in Antarctica over the course of 10 years, it includes, as one might hope, some breathtaking time-lapse photography of moving clouds, ice, shadows and lights. This last category includes not just the psychedelic atmospheric phenomenon known as the aurora australis, or the southern lights, but the normally dependable sun — which never dips below the horizon for several months of Antarctic summer and then disappears all winter. Keep in mind that the seasons here are reversed from what we know in the Northern Hemisphere.
What makes “Antarctica” unusual is that it focuses not on wildlife, despite a few requisite scenes of penguins, but on people. First-time feature documentarian Anthony Powell, a longtime year-round denizen of Antarctica, where his day job involves setting up and maintaining communications equipment, turns his lens largely on the “winter-overs” like himself — meaning the hardy few workers who stick around when the highly transitory population drops from around 5,000 in summer to below 700, along with the falling temperatures.
These self-described eccentrics, who include Powell’s wife, Christine, come on camera to talk about what living year-round in Antarctica is like. They’re not what Powell calls the “people you see on the National Geographic Channel,” but the firemen, mechanics, office administrators, retail store clerks, pilots and chefs who keep McMurdo Station running. (That’s the U.S. research center where much of the film was shot.)
Antarctica is a starkly handsome place, to be sure, but its hardships seem to take some getting used to, judging by the comments of the film’s subjects, all of whom readily admit that 12 months at the bottom of the world isn’t for everyone. Homesickness, cabin fever and something called polar T3 syndrome — a drop in the level of the thyroid hormone triiodothyronine, causing forgetfulness and other cognitive impairments — make a career in Antarctica a difficult choice for most.
Then there’s the weather, which includes, over the average winter, one category 1 storm every week, one category 3 storm every month and one category 5 storm every season. This is not the place for people who hate snow. Powell includes some incredible footage of living quarters piled high with drifting snow — blown in through imperceptible cracks around the windows.
It’s also surprisingly poignant to hear people rattle off the simple things they miss, such as fresh cauliflower, a bath and the sound of falling rain.
That’s really what makes “Antarctica” so moving. Yes, it features some of the most rapturous footage of calving glaciers and ice floes — alternately freezing and thawing — that you’re likely to have seen (much of it captured on equipment designed and built by the filmmaker). But it is the simple glimpses of ordinary life in an extraordinary place that are the most stirring moments in the film.
★ ★ ★
PG. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains some mildly disturbing thematic elements and a bit of coarse language. 91 minutes.