Five Antarctica Documentaries to Check Out

Antarctica remains one of the few underexplored areas of our planet. Its startling beauty and mystery belie dangerous cold and other perils. Neither stops explorers from traveling there, nor do they stop documentary makers from going with them.

Check out these five documentaries about the southern-most continent.

Encounters at the End of the World

Directed and narrated by Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World offers breath-taking scenery while exploring the wonders and dangers underlying it. Herzog interviews people working and living at McMurdo Station. As Herzog learns their stories and the natural wonders of the continent, he develops meditations on insane penguins and human extinction.

Antarctica: A Year on Ice

While Herzog is the ultimate outsider, Anthony Powell brings an insider’s access to his Antarctica: A Year on Ice. Ten years in the making, this visually stunning documentary shows what it’s like to live on the continent that sees 24-hour days in summer and 24-hour nights in winter. Instead of focusing on the scientists like other documentaries, Powell tells stories of the people who keep the stations running, from communications specialists to domestic help.

Antarctic Edge: 70 Degrees South

Scientists are the heroes in Dena Siedel’s Antarctic Edge: 70 Degrees South. A group of them take a month-long boat trip along the Antarctic coast, studying climate change and its effects on penguins, whales, krill, and ice. They conduct their studies using expensive and sophisticated equipment, and these experts then explain the studies and their relevance.

Shackleton’s Voyage of Endurance

Sir Ernest Shackleton planned a journey to traverse the southern continent — an 1,800-mile trek of mostly unexplored territory in the early 1900s. Shackleton’s Voyage of Endurance delves into the history of the expedition, focusing particularly on the final leg to and across the South Georgia Island. This documentary uses interviews with experts and descendents, archival footage of still and moving images, and oral dramatizations from the explorers to bring the story to life.

Terra Antarctica: Re-Discovering the Seventh Continent

Jon Bowermaster’s Terra Antarctica: Re-Discovering the Seventh Continent follows a more modern journey on the seas near the continent. Traveling by sailboat, kayak, and small plane, the documentary features the expected stunning icy visuals alongside more quirky human experiences, such as preparing meals on a rocking boat and exploring a Russian Orthodox church. First-person voiceover offers insights into the expedition, climate change, and human impacts.

Should another title be on this list? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

Three Docs on Ice: Science, Spectacle, and Storytelling

Dena Seidel’s Antarctic Edge: 70 Degrees South recently became available on iTunes. Its topic and telling found me watching two other related documentaries: Chasing Ice and Encounters at the End of the World. All three address in part glaciers and climate change. What differs among them is their focuses on science, spectacle, and storytelling.

Science and the scientific process assume center stage in Antarctic Edge. Seidel’s documentary follows scientists taking a one-month boat trip along the Antarctic coast. They study climate change through penguins, humpback whales, krill, water, and of course ice. They study samples from the water and evaluate animals using very expensive and sensitive equipment.

Multiple experts explain their studies and their significance. Warmer temperatures mean habitat and food availability changes for penguins, for example. The scientists also explain the processes in conducting their studies. Animations visualize these processes.

While multiple experts appear, no one person becomes the forerunner, the “star.” All studies stand on equal footing in their representations.

Instead of starting with science, Chasing Ice begins with stunning ice spectacles. James Balog, photographer and founder the Extreme Ice Survey, believes that photography provides the “visible evidence” needed to show the impacts of climate change through the rapidly retreating glaciers.

Chasing Ice, directed by Jeff Orlowski, follows Balog’s passion and his study, which involves setting up cameras to capture glacial changes throughout Iceland, Greenland, Alaska, and other places. We learn about Balog’s life, career, and obstacles alongside the challenges of the project, including rigging cameras to function within extreme weather conditions.

Both documentaries feature sequences of calving, where the ice breaks and falls into the ocean. In itself, calving might not sound interesting, until you realize the scale: Some of those ice chunks exceed twice the height of the Empire State Building.

Antarctic Edge shows some stunning glacial formations and calving, but they are traveling shots along the scientists’ journey. Chasing Ice, however, makes showing these spectacles and getting them on camera the focal point for highlighting climate change.

A massive calving becomes the climax of the film. Balog sends two scientists to watch a glacier for a month to see if it does anything. After three weeks of nothing spectacular, they record the largest calving event ever caught on camera. (Headphones are recommended for hearing the rumble that accompanies this event.)

While Antarctic Edge focuses on science and Chasing Ice focuses on spectacle, Encounters at the End of the World focuses on people and the human condition. I have written about this film before, but it is worth revisiting briefly here as it shows another approach to science, spectacle, and storytelling.

Funded by the National Science foundation and staunchly refusing to make a film about penguins, Werner Herzog visits Antarctica. While attracted to the natural beauty, Herzog ultimately is more interested people’s stories.

He does speak with scientists, such as a glaciologist who talks at length about ice dynamics and climate change. Other scientists explain the dynamics of the active volcano and penguin insanity. But he also speaks to the people driving trucks, raising plants, and doing maintenance who live and work as part of the community there.

The visuals in Encounters at the End of the World are stunning or utilitarian. The stunning include snowy landscapes, underwater seascapes, and volcanic formations. The more utilitarian show the base and its operations. But ultimately for Herzog, the bigger questions are not science and climate change, but the depressing question of humanity’s impending demise.