Cinema Club/Documental: Encounters at the End of the World

Posted on June 17, 2013

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Snow day.

First things first; excellent title.

‘Encounters at the End of the World’ is a 2007 documentary by Werner Herzog (of ‘Grizzly Man’ fame), and it features Herzog and his team heading up to Antarctica. As you do. Throughout the film, people living in a US-run research station are interviewed about their hopes, dreams, loves and passions, and about why or how they ended up at the end of the world. Herzog also gives little observations about the continent, and the legions of people that have made their way to the South Pole in the history books. And yes, there is also some cute penguins. Adelie Penguins no less. Got all that? Well, let’s dive into it, and make opinions out of nothing in order to fill a word count on a blog post.

Pretty much every documentary I have ever seen about Antarctica, and every advert or music video or book or google image search or whatever about the place, has pretty much always shown it to be this blissful dreamlike wonderland, a picture-esque world of snowy landscapes and gigantic icebergs the size of Portugal. Sure, a lot of that is visible in this film as well, as Antarctica does indeed look like it is probably the most beautiful place in the entire world. Easily. What is great about Herzog here however is that he doesn’t ignore the fact that by using it for all the fascinating and incredibly interesting scientific research over the last however many years, a lot of that beauty has been compromised in favour of functionality. Indeed, the McMurdo Research Station where the stay begins looks a lot like a makeshift internment camp in the desert, which Herzog correctly predicts will be the aesthetic if we manage to colonize the moon. Whenever I think of living on the moon (more often than you would think), this is not the image that comes into my brain but it is definitely the most likely.

The interviews with the researchers and staff at the base and on the continent are a bit of a mixed bag as well. Again, in the hands of anyone else, these would be a bag of over-romanticization, the vagabond lifestyle being praised to the skies. In Herzog’s masterful hands however, the group really are depicted as a collection of lost people, who have ended up there as opposed to it being some sort of destiny or following of dreams. You have a mix of overly ideological modern science types and grizzled veterans, and almost 100% of the time the veterans are totally more likeable. Three interviews in particular stand out, for very different reasons. The first is with the linguist, who has without doubt the stupidest facial hair I have ever clasped eyes on. The second is with the women who only seems able to tell travel stories that are totally harrowing, like traveling from Bolivia to Peru in a sewage pipe or being abducted by aliens in Ethiopia or whatever that was. It is something you see a lot in backpackers now, a desire to out-harrow each other, to tell a story that is more terrifying and awful than anyone else in the room. Is that not ridiculous? I want to only hear wonderful fun times from now on, no more being stuck in a car boot somewhere in Chisinau. The third interview is a very short one, and it involves an Eastern European struggling to tell his story of escaping his home country, and then showing his ready packed bag, to leave at any point. Next time you use the internet acronym ‘fml’ because you’re particularly miffed at something, please think about how lucky you actually are.

What makes this film special though isn’t so much Antarctica, but the child like curiosity and desire to explore that Werner Herzog prepares. It is entirely infectious, it is really impossible to not feel. He posts questions that are innocent yet thoughtful, and his observations of the continent, its past and its future are wonderfully human. Whether it is expressing slight frustration at the selfish explorations of explorers a century prior or trying to draw blood from the stone that is a Penguinologist, Werner Herzog is a joy to behold as narrator of this film. The fact that he is narrating an impossibly fascinating world, probably helps.

If you think I’m going to talk about the penguin that went mad and wandered off to its doom, you’re wrong. I can’t bring myself to do it.

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Posted in: Cinema, Documental, Travel