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Ice People
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by Mel Valentin

"A missed opportunity for documentary filmmaker Anne Aghion."
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Directed by Anne Aghion ("In Rwanda We Say… The Family That Does Not Speak Dies," "Gacaca: Living Together Again in Rwanda?"), "Ice People" documents a summer in the Antarctic as four geologists, two professors, Dr. Allan Ashworth and Dr. Adam R. Lewis, and two of their undergraduate students, Andrew Podoll and Kelly Gorz, hunt for clues to Antarctica’s prehistoric (and pre-frozen) past. Besides following the four geologists, "Ice People" offers a few glimpses into the cramped conditions of living in an unforgiving, inhospitable environment like Antarctica, including, unsurprisingly enough, the psychological stresses the men and women who live and work in Antarctica experience on a daily basis.

With the help of high-end HD video camera and cameraman/cinematographer Syvestre Guidi, Aghion captures Antarctica’s spectral beauty as the first sunlight appears over the horizon, the first in six months for the scientists and researchers at the McMurdo Research Station. The McMurdo Research Station stays open during the long, sunless, winter months. The arrival of a cargo plane laden with food and amenities heralds the beginning of summer and constant sunlight. Aghion cuts between brief interviews of the scientists and staff who live and work at the McMurdo station with panoramic shots of Antarctica’s uninhabitable landscapes, some surprisingly bereft of snow or ice, and the four geologists living and working in a rough circle of tents. For the geologists, the goal is a simple one: collect as many samples as possible and preserve them for later study, presumably in the United States.

While fascinating at times (as any documentary on Antarctica is likely to be, given its remoteness and natural beauty), Ice People suffers from several problems that undercut its usefulness as an educational documentary. While the decision to work with lightweight HD cameras make sense, it comes with a cost, the loss of detail, especially during the panoramic shots. More importantly, Aghion fails to identify any of the geologists or the men and women at the McMurdo Research Station (they’re identified in the end credits only). Simple titles noting names, affiliations, professions, and time spent in Antarctica would have helped, but that’s only part of the problem: Aghion doesn’t give sufficient context or background to McMurdo Research Station or any of the men or women interviewed there. Why is there an all-year round research station at Antarctica? What does it do? Even a simple tour of the station would have helped.

Likewise, Aghion didn’t do any of her interview subjects much of a service by not delving more deeply into their backgrounds or relationships. Why not begin the documentary stateside, interviewing the geologists in the United States first before following them to Antarctica? That would have helped give their work and what they hoped to accomplish context, not to mention make them more sympathetic to audience members. Aghion’s error was in assuming an audience already familiar with Antarctica and McMurdo Research Station. Sure, Wikipedia can help in filling in missing details, but only after seeing the documentary and not before or during. For an experienced documentary filmmaker, Aghion made some odd choices, choices that inevitably and unfortunately undermined Ice People.

And here’s one more example: at one point, one of the geologists mentions global warming and climate change as a rationale for spending time in Antarctica, but Aghion doesn’t follow up on his comments. Of course, Aghion could (and did) take her documentary in a different, albeit meandering, unfocused, direction, but the potential for a truly fascinating portrait of the McMurdo Research Station and studying Antarctica in general was there for the taking. It’s a pity Aghion and her film crew traveled so far to give us so little.

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originally posted: 05/04/08 09:53:51
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival For more in the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/04/08 Jacqueline Carpenter Great pictures and beauty but not my bag 2 stars
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  N/A (NR)
  DVD: 17-Nov-2009



Directed by
  Anne Aghion

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