Antarctica: A Year On Ice (Film Review)

The anticipation is starting to get to me! I have been patiently watching the other Grosvenor Teacher Fellows depart and return from their expeditions, but mine is still more than 5 months away (check the countdown clock for up-to-the-second updates). When the current group returns home on July 8, more than half of us will have already been on expedition. But one advantage of the Antarctica group's torturously long wait is that I have the time to do a lot of pre-expedition research. 

Close friends and family know all about my love for documentary films. I am lucky that my city has an annual international documentary film festival, and a whole cinema devoted to screening docs. It is by far my favourite film genre, and I try to watch at least one a month. This week, I celebrated the official start of summer vacation by watching Antarctica: A Year On Ice.

I enjoyed watching this doc for a number of reasons, both as a teacher and as a film lover. 

The film was produced, filmed, and directed by Anthony Powell, a New Zealander who has spent most of his adult life and career on the ice, including 9 Antarctic winters at the time of the film's release. It's Powell's first film (as listed in IMDb), and he is what one might call an "amateur" filmmaker; the film took 10 years to make, and he used mostly homemade camera gear (that he adapted to the Antarctic climate with everyday items like car batteries and fur hats). But Powell's results are far from amateur! His perseverance in shooting all of the amazing footage is inspiring to any viewer, and it feels empowering to think that as an amateur myself I may be able to capture the same type of beauty.

I probably don't even have to mention the film's scenery, right?

screen shot from Anthony Powell's Antarctica: A Year On Ice

screen shot from Anthony Powell's Antarctica: A Year On Ice

It was stunning.

screen shot from Anthony Powell's Antarctica: A Year On Ice

screen shot from Anthony Powell's Antarctica: A Year On Ice

But really, that goes without saying. 

screen shot from Anthony Powell's Antarctica: A Year On Ice

screen shot from Anthony Powell's Antarctica: A Year On Ice

The storyline of the film follows the rhythms of a year working in Antarctica, beginning in October, the start of the summer season. As Powell says, there's really only 2 seasons on the ice, "a busy summer ... and a wild and lonely winter." The film follows the "regular people" who live and work in Antarctica -- firefighters, mechanics, retail workers -- who are all an intriguing cast of characters. It gives us a glimpse at their ordinary lives in this extraordinary setting. 

Amazingly, the film is a feast for all of the senses. Watching it, you really get a sense of the sound of the buildings when they're being shaken by 125mph winds, the odourlessness of an Antarctic winter, the feeling of having icicles on your eyelashes, and the taste of an apple after a six month deprivation of fresh fruits and vegetables. 

In the classroom, I would recommend using this film for students in Grade 4 and up, but many clips could be shown to younger students, too. It is rated PG, and has some mild language, mild drinking, and some images that may upset young children, such as dead penguins. Scenes that I think students -- and adults -- would especially like are about the quirks of living in Antarctica: what happens when you open the door during a Condition 1 storm? How are holidays celebrated so far away from home? Who are the "orange people"? What happens when you throw boiling hot water into -40˚ air? Any why do you need to carry a pee bottle with you when you go out onto the ice? I also love that the film talks about Antarctica's role in international peace building. Peace curriculum is very important at my school, and at others too, I'm sure. There are lots of great discussion and research directions that students could take from this, such as the history behind the 1959 Antarctic treaty and modern day efforts to further protect it.  

Overall, this was a great film that I am happy to recommend to educators or other polar enthusiasts. Do you have any other Antarctica book or film recommendations for me? Please leave me a comment below!

★★★★☆

screen shot from Anthony Powell's Antarctica: A Year On Ice

screen shot from Anthony Powell's Antarctica: A Year On Ice