Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Encounters at the End of the World

ASOC was privileged to attend a screening of award-winner filmmaker Werner Herzog's documentary on Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World. The National Science Foundation of the U.S. sponsored Mr. Herzog's visit to Antarctica as part of its Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, which has sponsored a variety of artistic projects based on Antarctica.

At the outset, Herzog, who narrates the film, explains that he did not want to make another movie about penguins, but rather was motivated by a desire to learn more about the lives of those who choose to live away from civilization on a continent set aside for science. Although humans have traipsed all over Antarctica, it has nevertheless maintained its otherworldliness, which Herzog spotlights extensively. Upon arriving at McMurdo station, he pronounces unappealing the mundane buildings and group exercise classes that characterize life there. Instead, Herzog mines the more fascinating territory of Antarctica's eccentric personalities and unusual scientific research.

The film has many stunning scenes: underwater as a diver swims alongside a thick wall of ice; at the edge of a volcanic crater; across the great frozen expanses of icebergs. The scientists and other personnel provide interesting information not just about their experiments, but also the unique challenges of living in a frozen desert. One scientist relates that her research outpost is so remote that she wakes up at night when the wind stops blowing because the profound silence is more disruptive. With prompting from Herzog, who likes to ask offbeat questions, the people of Antarctica share their thoughts on everything from the probable extinction of the human race to the mental illnesses of penguins.

Encounters presents a compelling vision of Antarctica as a place where a sort of insanity is the norm. People put buckets on their heads to practice survival techniques during zero-visibility weather conditions. In the ocean, Weddell seals make noises reminiscent of Pink Floyd that can be heard by scientists working on the ice above. Scientists risk death to swim under thick ice to obtain vials of sand containing microscopic organisms. Herzog thus takes the viewer on a quirky but ultimately rewarding journey across Antarctica.

Encounters will air on the Discovery Channel soon. Check it out!

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