Film Southasia has just ended and in the spirit of celebrating the documentary form I would like to review one of my favourite Werner Herzog documentaries. Encounters at the End of the World, which came out in 2007, is an indelible film, once watched it will stick in your mind with its unusual cocktail of eerie beauty and the oddball characters who inhabit McMurdo station in Antarctica.
As always, the documentary is narrated by Herzog himself in his usual, dryly funny, heavily accented English that occasionally allows for some almost absurd bursts of heavy romanticism. For anyone who cannot stand self-indulgence, a Herzog film is not for you. However, though heavily idiosyncratic, it is undeniable that Herzog is some kind of genius in his ability to bring to cinema subjects that a lesser artist may never have the urge (nor the ability) to tackle.
Therefore, we find ourselves at the end of the world, in Antarctica, following the doings of a variety of characters who have chosen to inhabit this desolate but beautiful place that is the South Pole. Among those interviewed are a philosopher/forklift driver, a physicist, an iceberg geologist, a penguin scientist, a linguist/computer specialist who grows hot house flowers in McMurdo, and a further array of very strange people, all whom share one thing, a love of travelling and a penchant for adventure.
The judges for Film Southasia this year placed a high premium on the cinematic element of the documentaries in competition. While films should and ought to push the envelope of the cinematic medium, I personally do not agree that documentaries should be rated most highly on their visual quality. That being said, Encounters at the End of the World (along with most of Herzog’s other documentaries) manages to somehow incorporate both the slice of life aspect that is so crucial to documentaries side by side with a haunting sense of the visual, somehow marrying the people interviewed in these documentaries to their surroundings, making them artistically inextricable.
This is a mean feat even for someone like Herzog who has over the years developed a very keen visual and oratory style that allows his films to transcend the genre of documentary, the places and characters that he chronicles becoming almost mythical in their depiction.
Meanwhile, as our very own documentary makers strive to bring their films to the world, I can’t help but be ever so slightly miffed that films like Kesang Tseten’s excellent Who will be a Gurkha were ignored in the awards ceremony at Film Southasia due to this slightly unfair standard imposed upon a genre that should primarily be about chronicling, as impartially as possible, the very particular lives of people across the human spectrum. In the case of documentaries, cinema should stand back and give way to cinema verité.