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Jennifer Merin

Dueling Documentaries About Antarctica

By August 24, 2009

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It's wonderful to see that interest in Antarctica abounds in documentary filmmaking.

Recently, Anne Aghion's Ice People and Werner Herzog's Encounters At the End of the World have presented very different perspectives on the lives and experiences of the stout-hearted men and women who work seasonally as scientists and support staff at America's research stations on The Big Ice.

Now afloat are two additional documentaries that draw attention to life aboard ships dispatched to the Ross Sea during 2007 by two environmental organizations determined to intercept Japan's whaling fleet and prevent the illegal killing of cetaceans in Antarctica's protected waters.

At The Edge of the World follows Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's two ships, the Farley Mowat and Robert Hunter, as they search for Japan's larger, better equipped Nisshin Maru and other whaling vessels, and Battleship Antarctica chronicles the efforts of the crew aboard Greenpeace's Esperanza as they pursue the same goal.

Inronically, although their missions are identical - to protect whales and sustain Antarctica's pristine environmet - Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Greenpeace are completely at odds with each other in their approach, attitude and strategy. In fact, they don't cooperate at all.

The challenges of navigating Antarctica's rough and ice-covered seas makes the tense rivalry between the two organization all the more dramatic and fascinating, especially when the disabled Nisshin Maru sends a distress signal that requires their response.

Basically, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is the more aggressive organization, trying to disable the whaling ships by fouling their propellers, or ramming them. Greenpeace's practice is to position crew on inflatable Zodiacs in between the whalers' harpoons and the prey, and to document Japanese whale kills to reveal them to concerned people around the world.

The distinct personalities of the two environmental organizations are evident in the documentaries, and through their varied perspectives, viewers have an unusual and stunning opportunity to see how different filmmakers reflect and present their subjects.

Which is the better film? In my opinion, it's At The Edge of The World, which brilliantly conveys not only what being at sea in Antarctica is like (and, yes, I have been there), but also the passions of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society crew and their commitment to their cause. But, see both films and judge for yourself.

It's disappointing that the picture isn't completed by a third documentary, one representing the perspective of the Nisshin Maru. This will probably never happen, 'tho, because the Japanese rarely discuss whaling except within the context of International Whaling Commission meetings at which they consistently claim their whale slaughter is for scientific research. But, just think, if a Nisshin Maru documentary were available, we'd have the opportunity to experience a unique Rashomon-like documentary trilogy, with insights into the positions of the three protagonists in an intense drama of life or death on the Ross Sea.

(PHOTO: Greenpeace's Esperanza at Sea. Courtesy Minnow Films).

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