Ice People

Dir: Anne Aghion

Rating 4.0

Milestone FIlms

77 minutes

With the explosion of documentaries lately, especially those involving the visitation of remote geographic locations, there are a selective few that set themselves apart by unique presentation. In Ice People, award winning documentary filmmaker Anne Aghion accompanies two research geologists Prof. Allan Ashworth and Dr. Adam Lewis and two graduate students as they explore Antarctica’s interior Dry Valleys, far from the penguins and ice flows of other documentaries. Only a small number of scientific research teams have actually spent extended time here, due to the extreme conditions and hostile climate.

This is vast desolate wasteland characterized by many degrees below freezing temperatures, boulder-strewn valleys, sleeping volcanoes and immense glaciers but with virtually no snow or precipitation. This is a place somewhat like a huge freeze-dried expanse of barren wilderness that resembles closely a moon-like landscape. On this four month expedition the team hopes to uncover, by exploring hundreds of miles and painstakingly digging below the stark surface, clues to the nature of the long-distant past of this lifeless area and perhaps generate some ideas regarding the future of global warming and its long reaching affects upon areas around the world. A major high point for the expedition is the discovery of samples of freeze-dried moss and some fossil leaf samples. These findings were the result of weeks of digging in frozen lifeless soil and the minute detailed examination of countless rock specimens for days on end. These findings have now indicated that inner Antarctica as frozen and dry and devoid of life as it is today, was once a green place with forests and lakes some 14 million years ago before a sudden climatic shift swept through the continent.

There are only a few scenes where the director and the expedition members actually speak and share their experiences and feelings, and those scenes are very short and widely spaced. Most of this documentary is without any narrative whatsoever and any musical background is either absent or totally inconspicuous. This presents the viewer with the sense of how silently austere and lifeless is this corner of the world with its stark beauty back-dropped against the Trans-Antarctic Mountains. Its strikingly majestic landscape frozen in solitude is enhanced by the long periods of silence throughout the film.

What is more strongly depicted is the day to day drudgery of mechanical repairs, digging through the dry frozen dirt for specimens and dealing with a challenging climate. We see the team living in tiny claustrophobic tents without bathrooms or showers. They describe how their dirt impregnated skin peels off in layers and how their nostrils create periodic displays of small “snotcicles”. As Lewis, the glacial geologist relates, “We do not come to Antarctica because we are in love with Antarctica. We come to Antarctica because we want a mystery to solve, and we love a challenge. And there’s one here.”

by Allyn Sterling

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