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Anne Aghion cooks in a tent.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek/Antarctic Photo Library
Filmmaker Anne Aghion, center, cooks up lunch for her film crew and a team of scientists working in the McMurdo Dry Valleys in 2006. Her documentary, "Ice People," has been released and premiered around the world last year, including at McMurdo Station.

'Ice People'

Aghion documentary evokes the majesty of Antarctica

Filmmaker Anne Aghion’s latest documentary has already hit a few of the world’s cultural capitals since premiering last year — New York, Paris, San Francisco and McMurdo Station External U.S. government site.

McMurdo Station?

Yes: One of the first audiences to see “Ice People” External Non-U.S. government site were some of its supporting stars, with scientists Allan Ashworth and Adam Lewis External Non-U.S. government site introducing the film this summer season at the U.S. Antarctic Program External U.S. government site research station.

Aghion, speaking by phone from New York a few days before the film was to run in Antarctica, sounded anxious about the reception it might receive, despite a long list of praise the documentary had already gotten in the media.

“I’m quite anxious. I’m curious to hear what people think down there,” said Aghion, who received an Antarctic Artists and Writers Program External U.S. government site grant from the National Science Foundation External U.S. government site in 2006. “It’s very important for me that the people in the film don’t feel misrepresented.”

Aghion and her film crew — Sylvestre Guidi, director of photography, and Richard Fleming, sound recordist — spent about four months in Antarctica to create the documentary. About half the time involved living and working alongside a small team of scientists led by Ashworth and Lewis in a field camp in the McMurdo Dry Valleys External U.S. government site.

The researchers, both now professors at North Dakota State University External Non-U.S. government site, discovered evidence in the form of fossilized plants and insects of an abrupt climate change about 14 million years ago. The sudden plunge of the mercury extinguished the existing tundra ecosystem, sending the continent into a deep freeze from which it has never emerged. [See related story: Warmer continent]

But discovery is secondary to experience in Aghion’s film. “It’s really a film about the experience of spending time in Antarctica, and also about the experience of doing this kind of work,” she explained. “It’s a film where I take you on a journey to Antarctica. I want you to feel the cold. I want you to hear the wind and hear the silence.”

Back in Antarctic for additional fieldwork with Lewis, Ashworth said via e-mail that he knew the documentary would focus on life in the extreme after first meeting Aghion.

“The cinematography of the landscapes is spectacular, and combined with the music, helps to capture the vastness and scale of Antarctic landscapes, which are like no where else on Earth,” he said.

“She also captured the spirit of what makes us tick — which is the thrill of discovery and trying to explain what it all means,” Ashworth added. “She contrasted those aspects of our lives to the difficulties of working in environments of extreme cold — the grind of daily work — dealing with the grittiness of camp life — the grime of not washing for weeks on end and conversations with colleagues that go around and around.”

An Emmy-award-winning documentarian, Aghion described the audience reaction to the screening at the Walter Reade Theatre in New York. When the lights went back on, everyone was still, quiet, she said, as each one adjusted as if returning from a long journey.

“I felt like saying, ‘welcome home.’ The film takes you really far away,” she said. “I’m actually very happy with the film. I think it’s very close to my original intention.”

The film was somewhat of a departure from her recent work, which has focused on post-genocide Rwanda with a pair of films External Non-U.S. government site. Aghion hopes to complete a third documentary for release next spring when the African country commemorates the 15th anniversary of the internal civil war that claimed an estimated 800,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis.

Aghion is also busy promoting “Ice People,” which will open the Fargo Film Festival External Non-U.S. government site in March. She said the documentary should start hitting art house theaters, universities and other science museums around the country in the coming months.

Ashworth said he hopes the film will break the stereotype of scientists “as remote and egg-headed. 

“I hope people get a sense that scientists are regular people even though driven by different passions than plumbers, bankers, lawyers or doctors,” he added. “I hope that some young viewers might find the prospect of studying science exciting enough to pursue it later in life.”

What’s next for Aghion? She is characteristically vague on that question, though admitted she would be keen to return to Antarctica in the deep of winter some day. “I’d like to stay involved with Antarctica,” she said. “It would be a fun project to do.”

NSF-funded work in this project: Anne Aghion, Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, Award No. 0537954 External U.S. government site; and Allan Ashworth, North Dakota State University, Award No. 0440761 External U.S. government site.

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