The novel premise of the documentary Antarctica: A Year on Ice, which Chicago Filmmakers will screen at its Andersonville location this coming Saturday and then at Columbia College the following Wednesday, is that it doesn’t focus on the wonders of Antarctica or the scientists who study them. Rather, it centers on those people who work year-round on scientific-research bases in nonresearch roles. (There are very few people who do this. The movie informs us that only a few hundred people remain on Antarctica after the summer season ends.) Director-cinematographer Anthony Powell maintains communications networks for a living, and some of the more prominent interviewees include a fireman, an office manager, and a woman who manages her base’s general store. In its own modest way, the movie is as awe-inspiring as the sort of straightforward nature documentary you might see at the Omnimax Theater. It shows us that, even in the most forbidding conditions, little neighborhood communities still take root.
Community rituals seem like a necessary part of maintaining human life, as human beings were not meant to be alone. Yet most documentaries about scientists and explorers at the far reaches of the world take this basic fact for granted. That reflects the understandable assumption that people capable of scientific discovery are inherently more interesting than the ones who cook their dinner or transport their waste. Powell’s movie rebukes that assumption by reminding us that the menial workers in Antarctica experience the same natural phenomena as the research scientists. One of the film’s more emotional passages is when the woman who runs the general store describes seeing the aurora australis for the first time. Her testimony conveys such reverence for the natural world that I assumed she was a scientist until Powell showed her talking about her job.
Obviously, if all this woman wanted was to run a general store, she wouldn’t have to go to Antarctica to do it. “I’ve always felt like a misfit,” she says at one point, then notes that everyone she’s met at the research base feels the same way. Indeed, certain aspects of the community seem to have been determined before anyone even arrived. All of the talking heads are self-proclaimed eccentrics or else express satisfaction in spending long periods alone. And yet (as presented by Powell, at least) this little city of nerds seems a model of camaraderie. The year-round denizens of Antarctica punctuate the long winter with hearty celebrations and other creative activities that unite the few dozen bases. At one point, Powell launched a 48-hour film festival, commissioning each base to make its own amateur movie. Antarctica: A Year on Ice suggests a more professional version of the entries in that event. The movie serves as a postcard to all of us who don’t live on the base, providing us with glimpses of normal life in a place we might not think it to be possible.
A couple weeks ago, I proffered the term “neighborhood movies” to describe a certain model of light entertainment grounded in the everyday routines of a particular community. These movies are much easier to watch than they are to review—they’re unambitious by design, yet convey such authority in their details that they linger in the memory much longer than “important” works. Because of its gorgeous images of giant icebergs and the aurora australis, Antarctica doesn’t resemble most neighborhood movies, but it belongs in the genre all the same. The night before I screened it, I caught up with the restored version of Jacques Becker’s Antoine and Antoinette (a classic neighborhood movie, for certain), which played at the Gene Siskel Film Center a couple months ago. I found the films complemented each other beautifully. How encouraging it was to find the same anxieties about staying on task at work and keeping on good terms with your neighbors in such different eras and climates.