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J. Shane Mercer, Published March 02 2009

‘Ice People’ opens Fargo Film Festival

Given the bone-chilling temperatures, the weeks of constant daylight and wind gusts of up to 60 mph, Fargo geologists Allan Ashworth and Adam Lewis have surely picked one of the worst places on Earth to camp.

Of course, as Lewis says in a trailer for the documentary “Ice People,” which opens Tuesday at the Fargo Film Festival, “We do not come

to Antarctica because we are in love with Antarctica. We come to Antarctica because we want a mystery to solve and we want a challenge. And there’s one here.”

“Ice People” follows two North Dakota State University geologists along with then-NDSU students Andrew Podoll and Kelly Gorz as they spent about eight weeks in fall 2006 in tents and in the field.

Emmy-Award winning filmmaker Anne Aghion filmed the crew as they dug holes, took samples, scouted out places to explore, conducted GPS mapping and even found a fossilized leaf.

They worked in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys, digging into – often quite literally – questions about ancient climate change on the frozen continent.

Despite all the science going on, however, this film isn’t “NOVA.”

“It’s not a science documentary,” Ashworth said.

He said the film looks at what it’s like to exist and work in brutal, isolated conditions. In addition to following the NDSU crew, the film also looks in on individuals in McMurdo who provide services in support of scientific efforts.

“It’s meant to take you to Antarctica,” Aghion said in an interview from Paris, where she was working on two films.

One benefit to working in Antarctica is being able to work uninterrupted. Lewis said it’s possible to “devote 100 percent of your brain power and thoughts” to work. And there’s the beauty of that pristine, unaltered part of the world.

Podoll, now a geology graduate student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, points to the “surrealism of it all.”

“Just seeing a landscape very few will see; working on science very, very few will work on,” he said, adding, “You literally are in places that maybe only a handful of people have been in before.”

But there are obvious negatives, too. The howling wind, living in tents, going for weeks without a shower and extreme isolation are all challenges. And, of course, there’s the cold.

Further, Lewis has two young children, ages 3 and 6.

“I’ve been to one Halloween and one birthday in six years,” he said. “Yeah, it’s wonderful, but there is a very serious cost in doing this research.”

Gorz said during the weeks she was in the field she only talked to her husband for a total of about 45 minutes.

“It makes you appreciate the other person a lot more when you’re away from them for that long,” she said.

The film’s connection to NDSU wasn’t planned. The Paris-born Aghion traveled to a number of universities in search of scientists to work on the “Ice People” project. And once she found the NDSU bunch, getting them to sign on wasn’t a given for Ashworth and Lewis.

“We were pretty apprehensive,” Ashworth said.

They were concerned the film was going to be like reality TV and about how they would be portrayed.

Ashworth and Lewis ultimately were pleased with the film, though Lewis said he would have liked to have seen it focus more on scientific education. But, immediately, he said he recognized Aghion was interested in their experience, saying, “She makes films about human beings.”

Aghion will be at the Fargo Film Festival for the screening. And she’ll be joined by Ashworth and Lewis for a Q-and-A session after the film. She said she’s “psyched” about being there.

If you go

Ticket options for the 2009 Fargo Film Festival

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734