Filmmaker Anne Aghion, director of the documentary "Ice People".  (Photo: Omar P.L. Moore/

Anne Aghion's Ice Capades

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

April 30, 2008


Imagine the ice.  Right now.  A cold, bitter chill.  A freeze so deep that it is unfathomable.  Against such cold any silence at all would be numbing, especially in temperatures plunging below minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

You are now in Antarctica.  You are now one of the Ice People.

You are just like Anne Aghion, a feature film director from New York City by way of France.  To journey out to the Antarctic meant more than a dozen thousand miles on a journey to the bottom of the Earth.  Ms. Aghion spent almost four months there, from late August to early December, just as the summer was ending.  You might expect anyone, let alone this award-winning documentary filmmaker, to have a not-so soothing or hardly warming or relaxing experience, but if you had to bet the ranch on that expectation you would be in a whole heap of trouble.

"This was one of the most restful, peaceful times of my life -- literally.  You have to imagine there's no phone, no cell phone . . . there's no e-mail.  And the only thing you're focused on -- you know, these guys were looking for their fossils.  And I was focused on making a film.  And that was the only thing I thought of," said the Emmy-award winning filmmaker during a conversation about the making of her high-definition feature chronicle "Ice People", which will have its final showing here at the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival today at 1:15 p.m., having had two prior screenings.

While for Ms. Aghion, her crew and the geologists who are the subject of "Ice People", Antarctica was a haven, for others visiting the frosty region that is the South Pole could be more of a deterrent.  "There are people who resist.  You go into Antarctica and there are people who you know, think -- I mean, I don't know -- they have their own expectation or their own idea and they resist that peace, and so I think they don't necessarily get the right experience and they may not want to come back," said Ms. Aghion.  The filmmaker applied the same perspective to her film.  "It's really a film where you have to let go, I think.  And sort of take it all in.  And then it sort of gives to you." 

Some parts of the film briefly touches on climate change and global warming but the director had no particular intention to spotlight climate change as a subject in "Ice People".  "Of course it's important -- it's essential in the world we live in today, no doubt about it.  And (the geologists') research is essential in that sense.  But in the same way I didn't want to make a film about the science, I didn't want to make a film about global warming, about the climate change in Antarctica . . . I just wanted to give enough information so that you understood what these guys were working on," said Ms. Aghion, who did go on to say however, that the film was environmental in the sense of taking a look at the frozen continent in and of itself.  The geologists in "Ice People" search for fossilized vegetation in lakebeds in the Antarctic, lakebeds placed by numerous estimates to be as many as 14 to 20 million years old.

Most striking is that "Ice People" is a tranquil meditation capturing geologists crossing the expanses of Antarctica.  Only the wind stirs.  To prepare for the cold conditions the filmmaker had to go to what she called a "survival school" for several weeks.  "If you're not having a five or six-thousand calorie intake each day, you probably are going to die," Ms. Aghion cautioned.  In such conditions there were many other concerns, including from a technical standpoint when it came to filming.  Ms. Aghion mentioned that Richard Fleming, the film's sound recorder, expressed concern about recording silence in a place where it was so quiet.  "If we had recorded complete silence you would have heard the sound of the machine making noise," she said.  So there was a creation of sound -- the wind and the like from the conditions -- that was recorded to achieve the silence and tranquility that one experiences on the big screen.

There would appear to be many other obvious challenges on an ambitious undertaking like this but one wonders what, if anything, was easy about being in Antarctica over a four-month stretch.  For Ms. Aghion life in Antarctica provided more than an ephemeral moment -- something that the fast-pace and multiple-choice scenarios that her hometown of New York City would not easily afford or offer.  "It was the idea that I had time, the idea that there was no way out.  It's sort of like restricting your choices makes life -- you know, it's scary in a way because you're like, 'oh, I don't have a choice anymore.'  But it makes things easier.  It's like, I don't have a choice.  I've got to make things work." 

Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor cold of permanent daylight stopped Anne Aghion from making "Ice People" what audiences will discover it to be.  And with the conditions doing things externally (one of the geologists mentions that while initial taking a shower in Antarctica layers of his skin peeled off like candle wax) to the people of the film (Ms. Aghion said that her first shower was not a skin-shedding experience, but was "very nice"), effects were felt internally by the director.  "When I got out (of Antarctica) is when it hit me.  And I realized it more and more.  It's very subtle -- it's very -- but I am changed.  I want to slow down even more in the rest of my life . . . you know in that sense it changed me.  And I also want to go back.  When you go to Antarctica once you're either bitten by the bug and it gets under your skin and you want to go back -- or you -- some people hate it and never want to set foot in there again."  She added that one of the things that she noted about Antarctica was that there was "no diversity there whatsoever", that its sparse population was uniformly white.  "That's not by design or by evil intent," said Ms. Aghion, "it's just the way it is there."

Anne Aghion has explored warmer, yet more volatile climes with her direction of numerous documentaries including the first two parts of a trilogy about Rwanda and the Justice and Reconstruction process there, with the chronicling of the atrocities against the victims of genocide in Rwanda in 1994.  The first two films, preliminaries of the trials in Rwanda, entitled "Gacaca, Living Together Again In Rwanda?" and "In Rwanda We Say . . . The Family That Does Not Speak Dies" were filmed over the course of seven years.  "I just started editing the third film (centering on the trials themselves) . . . I'm sure it will be ready, by hook or by crook, you know, by next February or March, or something like that, in time for the fifteenth commemorations, which will take place next April, and I'm working on getting it out there as best I can."  Over the course of nearly three years she has filmed for the third film on four occasions and said that she and her editor were crying in the editing room while watching the footage.  "We were watching stuff the other day and its one of the women from the previous films (testifying before a court in front of 200 people) . . . there was no talk of machetes or cutting or anything like that . . . it was (her) talking about the life before (genocide) . . . I know her personally . . . so it's gonna be pretty gripping, I think."

"Ice People" has its final showing today at 1:15 p.m. at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. 

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