God shook the world, and whoever wasn’t stuck down fell to the bottom.
Encounters at the End of the World opens with three amazing cinematic pieces: the soundtrack of a choir singing, Werner Hertzog’s droll narration, and a gorgeous shot of a diver beneath the ice. You could be fooled into thinking this was just another BBC-produced episode of Frozen Planet, but I’m happy to say that Encounters takes us much deeper than a made-for-TV documentary, exploring the reasons for people voluntarily living in the South Pole while investigating the creatures living under it.
Director Werner Hertzog accepts an invitation from the National Science Foundation to visit the largest settlement in Antarctica, The McMurdo Research Station, and tries to understand what brings them to this vast empty desert.
Hertzog has one of the most distinguishing voices in cinema, and his disturbingly eccentric narration goes hand in hand with the visual tone of this desolate wasteland, captured by cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger. Throughout the documentary we’re treated to black and white footage of early 20th century explorer Ernest Shackleton, and his team’s attempt to reach that once-inaccessible and undreamt-of wasteland the South Pole used to represent.
Hertzog interviews everyone: truck drivers to cooks, geologists to research divers. Some of the world’s leading scientists venture here to conduct experiments under and above ground.
The people whom I found most interesting were the ones who aren’t there for specifically academic research. The former banker Scott Rowland, who drives the largest vehicle on the island, and the philosopher Stefan Pashov who drives a forklift.
“That’s a logical place to find each other because this place works almost as a natural selection for people that have this intention to jump off the margin of the map and we all meet here – where the lines of the map converge.There is no point that is south of the South Pole … Those are the professional dreamers – they dream all the time. And I think, through them, the great cosmic dreams come into fruition, because the universe dreams through our dreams. And I think that there’s many different ways for the reality to bring itself forward and dreaming is definitely one of these ways” – Stefan Pashov
You spend a lot of time under the water taking you deep in the cavernous underground and barren wastelands. But an interview with diver and cell biologist Samuel Bowser on the day of his last dive shows us otherwise. He takes us, the viewer, from the depths of the ocean floor to meet creatures who thrive in this near zero degree water, to the heights of an active volcano.
‘Travel – for those who have been deprived of freedom – means even more’.
In comes interview with utility mechanic Libor Zicha. Hertzog asks Libor about his escape from behind the iron curtain: the questions brings him to tears and he isn’t able to go into details about those painful events. This is one of the most central things about Encounters: you could hardly imagine a harder place to travel to or live in than the Antarctic. It represents the absolute end of the world, the drop off at the edge of the map, or the final frontier. It takes a special kind of person to dream of coming here, and even more so to live and work in the extreme conditions. Libor brings new meaning to the term ‘travelling light’. He empties the contents of his bag containing a sleeping bag, tent, clothes, cooking utensils, and a raft including paddles. All weighing less than 20kgs!
There are sarcastic moments of humour too, such as when Hertzog brings up the aspect of there being a gym and cash machine at the research station, and a conversation with an introverted research scientist regarding the possibility of insanity amongst penguins. There’s a beautiful all-too-human shot here, with the telling of how penguins can lose all sense of direction and end up wandering into the mountains to certain doom, while the research scientists are bound by their codes to not interfere, and simply stand by and watch helplessly.
A commonality runs through the people that live here – they have all chosen to reject what we would call an conventional way of living. For the time being at least, a fixed residence, a daily commute to work, and an office simply isn’t for them. They have deliberately chosen to live in a region of the planet of freezing cold where for a certain period of the year there is 24 hours of day light and torrential blizzards. Antartica receives five months of constant daylight – and I can’t help but think that after that amount of time I’d have a serious bout of insomnia.
Now some may argue that this is a bad thing. I disagree: to live in conditions such as this (or any such extreme wild) is a testament to human endurance and condition. I applaud them. The more time you spend away from your creature comforts, the less important they become.