film production + social action

Encounters at the End of the World

A penguin in Herzog's Encounters at the End of the WorldSo here’s a funny story: back in January during New York’s snow Armageddon, I was stuck at the San Antonio airport waiting to get home. I was biding time during an extensive delay at an airport bar nursing a beer and started making idle chit-chat with the guy next to me – also trying to get home, also delayed. We got up to the part where I tell him what I do. “Documentaries, huh?” Was his response. “I was interviewed for a documentary a couple of years back, but I got left on the cutting room floor as they say.” He gave me an elbow nudge to let me know he was in on my industry’s lingo.

“Guess I’m not that interesting.”

Turns out he was pretty interesting. Apparently, he was stationed on a construction job of sorts down in Antarctica for some period of time and the filmmaker he was casually referring to was Werner Herzog. And this film he got edited out of was Encounters at the End of the World – perhaps my favorite documentary of the last 10 years and the film that, after 4 years of musing and brainstorming, inspired me to actually go down to Peru and start making Web.

In the opening moments of Encounters at the End of the World – a 2008 documentary about adventure and Antartica – the director, Werner Herzog, makes clear that his interest in Antartica is different from other filmmakers who have journeyed to the ice continent in the past. Specifically, he tells us he is not going there to “make another film about penguins.” Herzog’s questions, he insists are different: “Why is it,” he asks, “that human beings put on masks or feathers to conceal their identity? And why do they settle horses and feel the urge to chase the bad guy?…Why is it that a sophisticated animal like a chimp does not utilize inferior creatures? He could straddle a goat and ride off into the sunset.” At its heart, Encounters questions why some of us feel that innate need for adventure, to leave the world behind and chase our passions. It is also, in the end, a film about penguins.

The Antartica Herzog find is one that has already been explored. The camera moves across the continent, introducing the viewer to those who have come from all over the Earth to this final frontier of ice. And while Herzog is clearly enamored with the eccentricity of his subjects, his larger point, it seems, is that we have run out of space to run. The landscape in Antartica is dominated by bulldozers, ice cream machines, even an ATM.

And the outlook doesn’t get much better from there. The researchers Herzog speaks with along his journey confirm what most of us already know in our gut: the Earth has had about all it can take of us – the ice caps of Antartica are beginning to melt away and our own inhabitance of the Earth is doomed to go with them. And so, delivered with this fatal blow, the film takes on the feel of a time capsule of sorts as Herzog asks the viewer to see our species from the perspective of future “alien researchers coming to see what we were doing at the South Pole.” He takes us on a tour of the ice tunnels that lead us under the South Pole. The tunnels themselves are marked with the seal of the American government, letting the alien researchers know we were here first. And, at the mathematically precise spot that marks the South Pole, is a frozen fish we have left behind to be preserved for eternity by the tunnel’s extreme temperatures. “We have been everywhere on this planet,” the frozen fish says.

But Herzog hasn’t finished with his questions. With no room left to explore, why is it that some of us still insist on leaving everything behind and clinging to the small remnants of the unknown we have left? The answer comes in what will remain among my favorite cinematic moments of all time: a penguin running steadfastly across Antartica’s plains of ice into the mountains. Some sort of wiring in the penguin’s brain has gone haywire, we learn from a researcher. It’s not common but happens from time to time. One day it seems, without warning, a penguin will begin to run inland with no clear direction. The fate of these AWOL penguins is definitive and unforgiving, they will die alone in the mountains.

That is the image we are left with. That penguin, insisting on going against every evolutionary instinct in its body, fleeing his flock and his world, stumbling over his own steps toward certain death. And yet it keeps on running.

I’ll be using this space once a week to write about movies that move me. I’ll usually try stick to films I watched during that specific week to keep things current. But as I start, Encounters seemed rather apt.