Documentary Site started as an outlet for my interests in documentary 15 years ago. Since then, my presence has expanded to writing, managing Twitter fans, and connecting with makers, promoters, and fans of documentary. Probably three of the coolest things to come from this endeavor are being invited to write for POV, visiting Kartemquin studios, and leading a discussion after a screening of The Trials of Muhammad Ali. My current project involves watching and writing about 365 documentaries in 2014. Feel free to send along your suggestions via Twitter @documentarysite!

#365Docs: Encounters at the End of the World (24/365)

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I’m watching 365 documentaries and writing about each one in 2014. Tweet your suggestions to @documentarysite, or send an e-mail to hmcintosh@documentarysite.com. Read more.

Note: This post may contain spoilers.

Only Werner Herzog could make Antarctica into a fascinating place I would like to visit, as he does in the documentary Encounters at the End of the World.

Herzog’s 2007 documentary includes what you might expect of him: intellectual voiceover, intriguing stories, and immense landscapes all bundled with a sense of wonder infused with a dose of wry cynicism.

The landscapes and seascapes of Antarctica offer a mysterious beauty. If the scale seems small in the image, the voiceover provides the reality check. Fumaroles in the ice created by a volcano can reach two stories high. Underwater footage takes us under the ice into a whole new world bathed in an eerie glow from the sun filtering through.

McMurdo Station is a base, almost a city, on the continent. Here, Herzog finds person after person with a story to tell. One identifies strongly with his Aztec ancestry. Another is a linguist. Still another escaped imprisonment behind the Iron Curtain and remains prepared to leave at a moment’s notice, right down to the inflatable raft and paddle tucked in his bag. One woman starts to recount her precarious journey from Nairobi to London in a garbage truck, but since her story wanders, Herzog offers his own briefer comments instead.

Herzog’s voiceover is both personal and intellectual. The documentary has grant funding from the National Science Foundation, and he reminds the organization (and us) the he cannot do a film on penguins. That reminder does not stop him from asking a scientist about penguins going insane, however, as he shows a lone penguin marching away from food and the colony toward a certain death.

Other comments prove amusing. During the summer, the sun shines for 24 hours over a span of about five months. Herzog notes, “This was frustrating because I loathe the sun both on my celluloid and on my skin.”

Still other comments offer a grim view on intellectual enterprise and human civilization, such as the allowing of languages to die out and seeing the eventual demise of human beings.

Herzog also knows when to keep quiet. One sequence shows scientists drilling through the ice to make a small hole and then adding dynamite to make the hole slightly larger. He observes later how the scientists remain quiet during the process, which his silence own magnifies.

After seeing a few of Herzog’s works, such as Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Grizzly Man, and Little Dieter Needs to Fly, I have come to appreciate his presence and style. I find myself gravitating to docs that have more “personality,” such as in their subjects, their presentations, or their makers. While not without their own problems, they do stand out in the sea of more anonymous documentaries out there.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site as a resource for documentary media and has greatly enjoyed the connections it has fostered over the years.