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.

‘Grizzly Man’ and the Filmmaker-Subject Relationship

Grizzly Man (2005) is as much about the filmmaker-subject relationship as it is about the subject himself.

The subject is Timothy Treadwell, a bear enthusiast who spent 13 summers living among them and recording more than 100 hours of video with them and himself. Treadwell and his then-girlfriend Amie Huguenard met their untimely deaths when they were attacked by a bear in Alaska.

The footage Treadwell left behind becomes part of the foundation for telling his story in this documentary. It shows him as enthusiastic about the bears and about interacting with them. Treadwell brings a boundless energy to his excited commentary about the bears, their relationships, and the other wildlife.

Werner Herzog develops his own relationship with Treadwell during the documentary. On the one hand, he expresses a great admiration for Treadwell’s footage and the depths of humanity that the footage offers. In the voiceover he claims he found “a story of astonishing beauty and depth. I discovered a film of human ecstasies and darkest inner turmoil.” He admires Treadwell’s tenacity and taking shots, in one case repeating a take 50 times. He also admires the way in which some of the shots take on their own life.

Herzog builds Treadwell’s story through interviews with friends, former girlfriends, his parents, and experts. They all note his exuberance, but some of them point out darker sides of his personality as well. Not everyone thinks highly of Treadwell. One of the first interviews with Sam Egli shows him stating, “He got what he was asking for,” for Egli thought the greater tragedy rested with Amie’s death.

But the larger meditation in this piece centers on Treadwell’s ideas about bears and rejection of humanity and on Herzog’s relationship with the subject of man and nature. One juxtaposition is particularly telling here. We see Treadwell over the moon about a pile of freshly dropped bear dung. “It was inside of her,” he exclaims as he touches it. This moment segues into looking at how Treadwell almost ignores the idea of death and its function within nature. Here, Herzog asserts his own view, stating, “He seemed to ignore the fact that in nature there are predators. I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.” To punctuate his point, the camera shows a close-up of the dead baby fox’s head.

“He seemed to ignore the fact that in nature there are predators. I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.” — Werner Herzog

In the end of the film, Herzog reveals that he has access to Treadwell’s final tape. Earlier in the film, he listens to the tape with Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend, and he tells her not to listen to it, not to watch it, but instead to destroy it. She agrees with him. In these final sequences, we see Treadwell talking before the camera, filming an extended sequence of a bear, and revealing a third shot of Amie. We see or hear nothing of his final moments, but instead we hear the coroner recounting what he heard and how he interpreted it. Any closer would have been too much.

While Treadwell’s love of bears continues up until the moments of his death, Herzog remains unconvinced of Treadwell’s deeply forged connections with them. Instead, he observes over a shot of a bear’s face, “I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of the half-bored interest in food.”

“I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of the half-bored interest in food.” — Werner Herzog

I’ve always maintained that any documentary about nature is as much about humanity as it is about plants, animals, and the “world outside.” Each nature film tells us something about nature just as it does about the humans making the documentary about it. Grizzly Man drives this point home not only through telling Treadwell’s story, but also through Herzog’s complex relationship with his subject.

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.

We the Economy

The economy this. The economy that. So much news coverage talks about the economy, but for those who avoided that class in college, what does “the economy” mean? We the Economy, a new online documentary series, offers some engaging explanations.

We the Economy consists of 20 short videos organized around a series of questions that parse the economy’s complexities into accessible information. The questions center on money, government regulation, resources, globalization, and equality. Each short within the series offers an answer to a specific question, such as, “Why is the law of supply and demand so powerful,” “What is the real value of a dollar,” and “What do human rights have to do with the economy.” They run 5-8 minutes.

Each short answers its question with a distinct, engaging style. The mix of techniques across the shorts is wild: animation, live action, stagings, talking heads, fun voiceover, and music. While some of the shorts follow the more traditional documentary techniques such as talking heads, archival materials, and voiceover, others push the boundaries of style and subject. Jessica Yu’s Taxation Nation evokes the Schoolhouse Rock shorts from Saturday morning cartoons. Lee Hirsch’s Recession explains the concept using a stunning shadow dance routine performed by Pilobus.

Taken together, the series covers a wide range of disparate topics without being overwhelming or condescending. These shorts tackle a topic with a depth that no single documentary can begin to approach. The diverse perspectives provide a range of viewpoints that open conversation and raise questions without reducing the complexities to binaries.

The people creating the videos represent a who’s who of documentary: Joe Berlinger, Jehane Noujaim, Marshall Curry, Barbara Kopple, Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing, and Steve James. Werner Herzog also makes an appearance as a reality check in Ramin Bahrani’s Lemonade War.

Check out the website for a richer experience with director interviews and comments, charts, and external links related to each question.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly Recounts Harrowing War Experiences

Little Dieter Needs to Fly offers a recounting of Dieter Dengler’s harrowing experiences as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.

Dengler was a German citizen who moved to the United States in order to pursue his dream of learning to fly. His inspiration came from the planes that flew over his village during World War II, but since Germany was grounded after the war, he came to the U.S. and at first joined the Air Force. Not finding the opportunities to fly there, he pursued a college degree, pursued citizenship, joined the Navy, and then got his chance to fly as a pilot in Vietnam.

Dengler conveys all of this background to the camera. It’s clear that he has told his story many times before, as he tells it with such a clarity and eloquence. Werner Herzog allows Dengler to speak at length and usually without interruption through edits or through questions, which is a nice change from the usual documentary interview.

When Dengler’s plane crashes in the jungle, the story turns into the stuff of nightmares. Dengler describes the tortures he experienced, the poor sanitary conditions, and the starvation. He describes his capture while standing in a jungle setting surrounded by men holding guns. These men participate in Dengler’s reliving of certain moments. In one scene they tie him up, and Dengler says, “This feels a little too close to home.”

Dengler himself quickly answers the question of why he would go through this, even though Herzog’s voiceover reassures us that Dengler knows it is only a film. Dengler hopes that going through it again might chase some of the demons away.

As Dengler describes his escape, Herzog inserts and Armed Forces training film from that era. While other archival footage appears throughout in support of Dengler’s recounting, this sequence stands out as different. Dengler and his friend escape, but they face starvation, exposure, leeches, monsoons, and violence from other people. The Armed Forces training film becomes almost a joke in showing how much misinformation exists about engaging in and surviving in jungle warfare. The juxtaposition only reinforces the trauma of Dengler’s escape, during which he saw his friend beheaded. After that, Dengler comments, “The only friend I had in the end was death.” Dengler’s rescue seems nothing short of a miracle, particularly through the description of his rescuer’s Eugene Deatrick sequence of events.

This documentary allows a great teller to tell his traumatic story. In some sequences, Herzog’s voiceover offers additional details or explanations, including insights into what Dengler thought about various situations. At first those kinds of explanations seemed odd, but they possibly reveal details that Dengler himself might not have been able to. Off-camera questions are rare, but an early question of Dengler is quite telling: “What does it mean for you to be a war hero?” Dengler replies that only the dead are heroes.

As with many other of Herzog’s documentaries, Little Dieter Needs to Fly includes a mix of song genres on the soundtrack. An interesting choice was the Tuva singers, often used in conjunction with the archival footage of the Vietnam War. The singing style comes out of a completely different region of the Asian continent, yet when used in this way the footage feels even more unsettling.

This documentary ends with the postscript of Dengler’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery in 2001, but it makes little mention of the circumstances. I did a little looking around online afterward trying to find cause of death, and a couple sites mentioned Dengler’s being in a wheelchair due to Lou Gehrig’s Disease and his taking his own life at the age of 62. Along with that information, the documentary leaves out mention of Dengler’s wives or children, thus firmly grounding us in his passion for flight and his prisoner of war experiences.

A Look into the ‘Land of Silence and Darkness’

Land of Silence and Darkness begins as a portrait of Fini Straubinger, who had been deaf and blind since adolescence. After spending decades in bed, she began to experience life and to help others in the same situation. Central to her awakening was learning about finger spelling, which provides a means of communication for those without sight and hearing.

Directed by Werner Herzog, Land of Silence and Darkness begins in an interesting way. While Straubinger talks, the screen remains black. As she finishes describing, then footage of what she describes appears, including road and ski jumpers. After the ski jumpers, she says, “I wish you could see that.”

Because she lost her hearing later in life, Straubinger is able to speak quite clearly. This documentary allows her to speak at length, recounting her story, describing her perceptions, and talking with others. She expresses some depression over the loss of her hearing and her sight, but she celebrates her birthday with her friends.

This documentary exhibits a great patience with its subjects and their means of communication. Finger spelling takes some time to get information across, and it also requires some translation at times from a hearing individual. In two sequences Straubinger and her friends visit botanical gardens and a zoo, where the experience each place by touching. An extended sequence shows her touching different cacti, with one person talking aloud about the cacti and another person spelling about them into her hand.

While Straubinger’s story is the start of this documentary, the second half of it shows her meeting people who are both deaf and blind. One woman lives in an asylum, and a brother and sister live in a house. Some children deaf-blind from birth receive some education. One 22-year-old never received any education, and a sequence shows him playing with a ball and not engaging with anyone. We never will know what is going on in his head. The most poetic of these sequences shows a man who, according to the voiceover, was rejected by humanity, and he spends several minutes wandering through the yard and exploring a tree. The camera patiently observes him as he explores.

The music in this documentary is occasional light strings, but otherwise spare, while the voiceover is mostly exposition. It sometimes conveys a hint of emotion, but for the most part it relies on information.

‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ Seeks a Deeper Meaning

Like almost all of Werner Herzog’s documentaries, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011) operates on two levels: in this case the important discovery of the cave and the attempts at finding greater meanings therein.

The important discovery is the Chauvet caves found in France in 1994. These caves featured paintings on the wall that were dated to 32,000 years ago, more than twice as old as any others previously discovered. In the voiceover Herzog himself calls it “one of the greatest discoveries in the history of human culture.”

He builds on this importance in part by bringing us into the filmmaking process, such us how they had to get permission, the limitations they faced on filming, and the processes they had to go through even to get into the cave.

Even with these limitations, however, the film takes us onto a journey into this cave. Along the way several scientists serve as our guides, talking about the features and the significance of the paintings, the bones, and the other formations. One woman, for example, explains the significance of the series of red dots the turn out to be palm prints from a man who had a crooked little finger. Another expert explains the famous panel of the horses, it being labeled “one of the great works of art in the world,” and points out the illusion of movement within what some might consider a very simple painting.

But as always with Herzog there is an underlying larger connection that he is trying to find. In the voiceover he states, “These images are memories of long-forgotten dreams,” reminding us that these paintings were done by people who had motivations and we will never know what those motivations were. They are, as he says, “enigmatic.”

But the answers, not to mention whatever the questions may be, also lead to speaking with other experts outside the caves. He speaks to them about Paleolithic Venuses, flutes, spears, and other artifacts from that era.

But in the end he and his crew are able to return to the cave and do more extensive filming, and here is where the film almost becomes like a rock concert (sorry) in that the cameras provide a front-row view of the images on the walls. I appreciated the sequence the most because no one explained what we were looking at, no voiceover waxed poetic about the significance, and really no one said anything at all. We just got a chance to look.

Werner Herzog Produces Anti-Texting and Driving PSA

Unless you watched the opening credits, you would not recognize From One Second to the Next (2013) as a Werner Herzog film. This short is a public service announcement sponsored by the four major cell phone companies in the United States about the outcomes of texting and driving.

This short features a series of interviews with survivors, family members, police officers, and drivers who caused the accidents because they were texting. One 8-year-old is paralyzed, an Amish family is killed, another woman survives with extensive physical and brain damage, and a daughter tries to come to grips with the loss of her father. Each story drives home the same basic message: Don’t text and drive. Why? Because the message can wait.

Aside from interviews and titles, this short bears none of Herzog’s auteurial signatures: no voiceover, no presence, no speculation, no tangents. The message here is clear and simple, and in many ways that is the point, since the short is part of a larger campaign to get people to stop engaging in what is really a very dangerous activity, not necessarily for you, but definitely for others.

I included this short because it is always interesting how artists engage in various activities in support of their art and how critics sometimes look away from these works as not “true” representations of the director’s work. Yet, directors such as Errol Morris in particular have extensive careers doing advertising, and a recent article interviewed Rory Kennedy about her move into making commercials as well. So because this piece is sponsored, does that preclude it from being part of his oeuvre? Does the fact that it is a public service announcement exclude it from the documentary genre? Just a couple thoughts.

Herzog Delves ‘Into the Abyss’ of Capital Punishment

Into the Abyss (2011) is a look into the capital punishment system in Texas through the case of two teenagers who murdered three people for a car. Of the two teens, one entered a plea and received a lighter sentence, while the other received the death penalty. Into the Abyss is not a race-to-prevent-execution documentary, but more a meditation on the larger question of what execution means.

The opening scene of Into the Abyss sets up the rather difficult question that runs throughout this Investigation Discovery documentary. In that scene, Werner Herzog poses the question: “Why does God allow capital punishment?” The reverend replies, “I don’t know the answer.” Herzog asserts his position against the death penalty early on, but he allows room for others to express myriad viewpoints.

This documentary features some very tough interviews, not only for those giving them but also for us watching them. Probably one of the toughest is with Michael James Perry, the one who received the death penalty and who was scheduled to be executed within eight days. As Herzog and he set up for the interview, Perry is smiling and laughing — not the expected behavior for someone about to die.

A police officer walks us through the different crime scenes and explains how the case started with one victim and expanded to three. His tour is intercut with police video and recent footage of the scenes. As the events of the crime unfold, interviews with those affected bring in the fuller picture, not only about the crimes, but more so about the people involved and the people affected by them. We meet the siblings of the two boys who were killed. We also meet Jason Aaron Burkett, the one who got the lighter sentence, and Burkett’s father, who also is in jail.

Two of the more interesting interviews address the issue of capital punishment specifically. He interviews Fred Allen, a former captain of the death house team. Allen describes the routine that the entire team goes through to take the convicted through his or her final hours. He recalls doing more than 125 executions, but his first female execution finds him realizing he cannot perform his job anymore. He quit, lost his pension, and moved on to other things. Lisa Stolter-Balloun, the daughter of the woman murdered, offers a different take. She attended the execution and felt better after Perry died, but she also states she would have been happy if he had received life without parole.

This documentary reminded me of Herzog’s fascination with the little details and the stories behind them. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, for example, one of the scientists mentions that he was part of the circus, and that led to a small tangent in their interview. We see these again in Into the Abyss, wherein Herzog asks about several tattoos and their significance. The tattoos lead to further revelations about the men who have them.

Unlike some of his other documentaries, Into the Abyss is less abstract and less open-ended in its speculation. Herzog himself appears less frequently than he does in his other films, allowing more time for the extended interviews. I wonder if those changes are because of its inclusion in under Investigation Discovery’s umbrella.

‘Ballad of the Little Soldier’ Tells Stories of the Child Soldiers

Ballad of the Little Soldier (1984) is a German-language documentary short about the situation facing the Miskito Indians in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas. Co-directed by Werner Herzog and journalist Denis Reichle, the documentary focuses primarily on the Miskito people’s stories.

This short balances two parts, though neither is wholly separated from the other. Through interviews with refugees, women, and survivors, we learn of the atrocities they faced as the Sandinistas burned their villages, looted their homes, and attacked and killed their families. One wounded man describes how he was shot multiple times yet managed to survive. Another woman describes how she lost several of her children.

The more shocking part of this documentary is its showing of the child soldiers and their training to fight against the Sandinistas. The documentary opens with a child wearing camouflage, holding a gun, as he plays a cassette tape and sings the song that plays. Intercut shots show some of the other child soldiers as he sings, and as the song ends he smiles.

Further footage shows the children being trained through drilling, firing live ammunition, and launching grenades. There is something disconcerting about such young children feeding ammunition into an automatic rifle as it fires. Even more disturbing are the men training them as they talk about the ideal age for bringing the children in and teaching them how to fight.

Yet the kids gain an opportunity to speak about why they are fighting, and many of them refer to family members who were killed. They assert that they are not afraid.

This documentary is heavy on voiceover in part because it provides contextual information for who these people are, what they have faced, and what motivates them to fight. One rare tangent recalls his own childhood of being drafted at 14 in Berlin to fight against the Russians. Another rare comment is more pointed: “When I see these kids, I can already them dead.”

As a bookend, the documentary ends with a child singing, the song ending, and the child smiling for the camera.