Reviews Short Documentary

Project Antarctica – Easter Island Extension (2021) – 3.5 stars

Director: Evan Michael Gering

Running time: 13mins

Locked in its four-kilometre-thick ice sheet, Antarctica houses a unique record of what our planet’s climate was like over the past one million years. Antarctica is important for science because of its profound effect on the Earth’s climate and ocean systems – and it is an essential area of focus as we seek to understand and prevent the accelerating warming of our planet.

On the back of the unmitigated flub that was COP26 – a supposed ‘turning point’ for battling climate change that seemed more concerned with managing the migration which climate change will cause than preventing millions of deaths outside of the world’s wealthiest nations – covering a film focusing on the Arctic seemed very timely. Unfortunately, Project Antarctica – Easter Island Extension quickly proves not to be that sort of film.

Centring on the recollections of Claire Gering, the film is more of a scrap-book of memories, committed to film by her grandson, director Evan Michael Gering, and son, David Gering, who serves as an interviewer. Way back in 1980, Claire and her husband George went on a month-long trip to the Antarctic and Easter Island – they were traveling for leisure rather than business though, so it soon becomes apparent we will not be discussing how the icy continent has changed in the intervening four decades.

Delving into Claire’s crates of artifacts from the expedition, we are treated to some admittedly stunning photographs from the bottom of the world. The endless white horizon and piercing blue sky and the frozen land’s strange inhabitants seem so full of energy in George’s vivid images – something even more remarkable as he apparently only had one good eye during the trip. Unique film footage meanwhile takes this one step further, as icebergs home to thriving seal colonies, oceans where killer whales burst through the surface, and rocky outcrops littered with penguins all spring to life – and we almost travel through time, to see through Claire’s eyes the impossible beauty of this bizarre environment.

But we haven’t gone back in time and we can’t see these things through such an innocent point of view. We are seeing them through eyes which, after decades of increasingly distressing David Attenborough documentaries, have been made aware of the impending collapse that the Antarctic now faces. In that context, I can’t help but wonder what Claire makes of the world in the here-and-now. Even more so, I wonder how she feels that globe-trotting tourism as celebrated in her footage undoubtedly helped accelerate the crisis the Antarctic now faces.

Of course, it would be unfair of me to mark down the film on failing to push for such an answer. Not every film has to be a political or environmental essay. But in the absence of such an angle, we are left confused as to what all this is actually about.

If this is a personal, rather than political, project, why is it so removed from the emotional experience that comes with the act of remembering? Claire goes to pains to point out this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, while also noting at various stages that she and George would never return to Antarctica, and that his health was in a state of decline when they set out. He has passed away in the years since, though it is unclear when. David doesn’t force the matter with his questioning; possibly it is too raw for him, or he is concerned it might upset his mother.

One way or another, though, I can’t help but wonder how she feels looking at all these images in his absence. Is it a pleasant thing to revisit the happy memories you made with someone after they are gone? Does it bring back the sting of losing them in the first place? Maybe it’s a bittersweet combination of both. Sadly, we never hear what Clarie’s experience was though.  

Don’t get me wrong, I am well aware that it is difficult to push any interviewee on such a private and delicate matter. That difficulty must only be increased a million times when interviewing your own mother. But it really does limit what the reach of the film will be, and perhaps an external voice – a seasoned interviewer willing to address sore points, but skilful enough not to broach them in an upsetting manner – might have helped take this project to another level.

As it is, beyond seeing a couple have a pleasant time talking about an amazing trip, there is little for the audience to relate to here. And when Claire implores us to learn from her experiences, and make the most of opportunities to see the world, we must wonder “to what end?” Are we looking to travel for the sake of collecting penguin statues and photo-albums, to display them as prestige purchases? Or are we looking to experience things, and create memories, with those we love most?

This is a missed opportunity, albeit a stunning one. Visually, this film is a treasure-trove of images depicting what seems destined to become a lost world. Unfortunately, the filmmakers do not seem concerned with providing an emotional or philosophical motif which can really give those images the heart and meaning they deserve.

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