The Listener at the NZ Film Festival: Antarctica, Wadjda & the End of the World

by David Larsen / 24 July, 2013
Hugh Lilly & David Larsen review three more films from the festival.

The elegant, astonishing and artfully interspersed high-definition time-lapse shots of the Antarctic skies and landscapes are the greatest reason to see Anthony Powell’s documentary about life on that continent, but the film’s other elements are unduly restrictive, repetitive, and, eventually, a little exhausting. In 2003, Powell, a New Zealand photographer, began teaching himself time-lapse photography techniques. He traveled to Antarctica and spent much of the following decade wintering there, perfecting his craft by tinkering with little machines and pulleys affixed to his cameras. Along the way he contributed to a number of television series—among them the BBC’s Frozen Planet—and began planning a feature film about life in the “frozen south.”

Antarctica: A Year on Ice

Subtitled A Year on Ice, Powell’s documentary shows day-to-day life on the continent largely through to-camera interviews with scientists and administrative staff at McMurdo, which is the largest Antarctic research station, and one of five operated by the United States. Some 30 countries operate bases in Antarctica; Argentina and Russia operate seveneach, the bulk of them having been created in the 1950s. (Our only station there, Scott Base, was established in 1957.) These facts aren’t replayed in Powell’s film, though. He’s not really interested in giving even a cursory history of the continent, and the collaborative, international nature of the scientific endeavour there is hinted at only in passing, and then only a handful of times. Most gratingly, a frequent American interviewee, expounds in broad strokes sentiments of how wonderful it is that we can all get along so well down there—“if only the wider world could emulate us!”

Many thousands of people live in Antarctica in its summer, but this drops significantly after April—to the point where most bases have fewer than 20 inhabitants over the winter months. The only time Powell mentions any of the stations that aren’t McMurdo or Scott Base is a funny but tonally incongruous note about a mini film-festival he decided to curate one winter: he asked all the other bases and research stations to make a short 48-hours style film about their customs and traditions. Presumably they gathered to watch each others’ entries—Powell doesn’t say. Outside of a pretty nifty CGI introduction to the continent’s basic geography, the clearest idea we get of life outside McMurdo are quick flashes of some of these films—ice-zombies, intrepid adventurers, and so on—and a jokey reference to the ‘goofy’-looking architecture of the South African station.

There’s an endless-seeming section about the malaise and introversion brought about by the encroaching winter and its relentless storms, and it gets dull very quickly; it’s hard to care about these people when you know that surely there are other, cooler things happening on other parts of the continent. Perhaps Powell chose McMurdo because of its proximity to Scott Base, or maybe it was because it’s the largest research station—home to some 5,000 people in warmer climes—but his reliance on returning to the same few (American) interviewees over and over again is immensely frustrating, especially once they begin to repeat themselves. (His own on-screen forays are a breath of fresh air; I wish he and his wife had popped up in front of the camera more often.) It’s fine that Powell has chosen to not make an activist-environmental film (minor asides about dead and dying baby seals notwithstanding), but the obverse of that type of documentary, in order to work, has to look at life on both a small and grand human scale. This simply doesn't.

Powell’s film would have been more interesting had he planned a more holistic approach to the subject, perhaps given a small natural-history of the continent and its recent inhabitation, and talked at a more intelligent level about the science done there—much of which must surely be ground-breaking. As it is, A Year on Ice comes off as restrictive and quite unambitious in its methods, and somehow less human (or perhaps less humanistic) for it. Those time-lapse shots sure are brilliant, though.


Village at the End of the World

An ultimately more ambitious and far more affecting film about an isolated group of people in an icy climate, British filmmaker Sarah Gavron’s Village at the End of the World could be subtitled A Year on The Edge. In it, Gavron (Brick Lane) documents a year in the lives of the 59 inhabitants of Niaqornat, a tiny Inuit community in northern Greenland. Any great documentary picks its ‘star’ early on (in this case we’re introduced to a teenage boy who longs to see the world) but doesn’t lose sight of the bigger picture—here, the wider village and its environment—extrapolating the one from the other. The transition between seasons in this film is managed more artfully than Powell’s sometimes abruptly jovial manner, which consists for the most part of a mid-winter landscape shot and a Dad-joke comment (“It’s pitch-black but it’s actually noon!”, etc.).

Gavron’s compact film, by contrast, interviews a wide range of people in Niaqornat in a seemingly hands-off manner; Village touches on environmental issues, approaching them not from a Western-activist point of view, but showing how the Inuit people maintain and even reinvigorate regional folk traditions. The story of how the inhabitants are forming a co-operative to wrest control of their fish-processing factory from Royal Greenland is another thread in the film’s neatly composed narrative—and to top it all off, the surrounding landscape provides stunning images, superbly captured, to rival the best of Powell’s labour-intensive work. Village at the End of the World examines, from an affectingly humanistic and historical perspective, not only the very real economic and social precarity in which these people live, but also the valuable traditions they’re seeking to uphold in the face of sometimes trying obstacles.

WADJDA (David Larsen)

“Learning the Koran is hard for me”, says our ten year old heroine demurely. Her classmates smirk: finally, the brat who snuck into the Religious Club to try to win the upcoming Koran competition is admitting she's a lousy student. Their smiles fade as their teacher praises the girl for her modesty. Everyone, she announces, should try to be like Wadjda. She fails to notice the glint in her student's eye.


Everyone should, indeed, try to be like Wadjda. I put this on my festival list purely out of curiosity: the first film ever directed by a Saudi Arabian woman, and one of only a handful of films ever shot in the country. (Public film screenings are illegal there). I was ready to smile politely and pat the film on the back for managing to get made at all. But this is not a piece of cinema that needs to be graded on a curve. Like its small but determinedly untame title character, it's forceful, formidable, impressive, and all the more so for initially seeming rather modest.

Wadjda lives with her mother in a spacious compound, well walled off from the gaze of passing men. Avoiding the male gaze is vital, Wadjda is constantly admonished: cover your hair, cover your face, don't draw attention. Don't laugh aloud if a man might hear you through the wall. We – the Western “we”, the appalled, bemused global festival audience – are at first shielded from needing to acknowledge the full emotional weight of these restrictions, because Wadjda wants nothing to do with them, and she's young enough – just – to get away with being strong-willed. What she wants is a bike. One bike in particular: a green one, with handlebar tassels. She wants to learn to ride it so she can beat the boy next door in a race. “Don't you know girls can't ride bikes?” he shouts, vanishing into the distance with his friends.

Wadjda doesn't know anything of the sort. What impressed me most about Haifaa al-Mansour's writing and directing is the way she quietly allows the film's underlying truth – the appalling status of women in her culture – to leak into the simple story of a young girl trying to find the money to buy a bike. Partly this is achieved through good character writing and likeable (if not quite flawless) child acting: Wadjda is a joy to spend time with, and therefore we start to care about her, and therefore our increasing understanding of the world she inhabits feels like an increasing awareness that something terrible is going to happen.

The film also gains a lot of power from unshowy but effective use of physical space. The streets, vacant lots, and indoor spaces we see are all wide, expansive, high ceilinged. Wadjda is a small figure in a large world. It makes intuitive sense that she wants this bike: it isn't a consumer toy she's after, it's a means to meet the world on its own terms. The film never thumps you over the head with the idea that the bike is a metaphor for freedom. It doesn't have to.

Likewise, the teachers in Wadjda's school are not written as demons. They're strict and they're unpleasant, but not beyond the range of the average school drama. What makes them seem increasingly ominous and frightening as the film progresses is the realisation that their insistence that girls cooperate in their own systematic disempowerment has the full weight of this culture behind it. Wadjda's refusal to be crushed is only a small rebellion, on the scale of a single ten year old with a ten year old's concerns, but it feels precious, thrilling, and... futile?

No, in fact. The question I didn't quite want to ask myself afterwards was whether the sense of defiant optimism al-Mansour manages to create is at odds with the facts as she presents them. But the film does not shy away from harsh realities – a subplot involving Wadjda's parents is heart-breaking – so much as it insists on the possibility of change. I hoped to be pleasantly surprised by this film. I did not expect to be moved to applaud. I was, and so was my entire audience. Put this on your need-to-see list.

See also:

The Listener at the NZ Film Festival: five early highlights

The Listener at the NZ Film Festival: We Steal Secrets
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