It got pretty hot in the Northeast this week. Actually, that's an understatement. I've never seen so many people covered in so much sweat. Everyone looked like Robert Hays in that scene from Airplane! where his face is pouring out water. And we weren't even trying to land an airliner. Fortunately, there are ways of tricking the brain into thinking it's cooler. Some people do it by watching dramas like Never Cry Wolf or Vertical Limit or The Day After Tomorrow. I'm a documentary kind of guy, so I've been revisiting some favorite non-fiction films set in frozen settings. The heat wave may be past its worst highs, but keep these five docs in mind for the next time there are such sweltering conditions as we experienced in the past couple days.

Nanook of the North(Robert J. Flaherty, 1922)

Learn how to build an igloo and hunt seal in this mostly staged ethnographic study of an Inuk family. So what if that family isn't really a family and nearly all scenes are re-enactments, some not even of contemporary practices? It was at least legitimately shot in the cold north of Canada (not technically the Arctic, however), and despite the fact everyone's pretty naked when they go to sleep it does appear to be a frightfully freezing place. Alternate: if you prefer something more truthful, you could also check out South (1919), which documents first-hand the Antarctic explorations of Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Into the Cold(Sebastian Copeland, 2010)

This Tribeca Film Festival selection hasn't been officially released yet, but maybe it'll be out in time for next year's heat wave. In it, photographer/filmmaker Sebastian Copeland and his traveling companion, Keith Heger, trek to the North Pole to both commemorate the anniversary of Robert Peary's 1909 exploration and to document the beauty of the Arctic before much of the icy landscape disappears due to Climate Change. Enjoy your sunburn a little more while taking a look at all the frostbite the guys suffer. Alternate: if you want a quicker, safer, less momentous trip to the northernmost point of the globe, watch the beginning of Michael Palin's BBC docu-series Pole to Pole.

March of the Penguins(Luc Jacquet, 2005)

One of the reasons this documentary was such a big hit five years ago is that it was brilliantly released during the summer. And it turned out to be a pretty hot July that year, as well. Of course, those cute little penguins had something to do with it, as kids were obsessed with the flightless birds at the time and it didn't matter that this, unlike other popular penguin movies, was more of an educational experience. Still, that was the first time I realized the value of seeing something set in Antarctica, or another freezing location, during a scorcher. Alternate: compared to March of the Penguins, the literally polar-opposite rip-off Arctic Talewas a bomb at theaters. Maybe 2007's weather wasn't so unbearable? But if you prefer polar bears and walruses to penguins, and Queen Latifah's voice to Morgan Freeman's, this might suit you more.

Encounters at the End of the World(Werner Herzog, 2008)

There's something about Herzog's curious travelogue of Antarctica that makes me feel less cold than March of the Penguins does. Maybe it's seeing all those people living down there. And so many interior shots. And the fact that much of the exteriors are sunny and clear. If it weren't for the filmmaker's chilling voice-over I might not even have included it here, but the setting combined with Herzog's narration makes for a sufficiently frigid film. Alternate: no alternate for this one. Just see it, heat wave or not.

Touching the Void (Kevin Macdonald, 2003)
Not all cold-weather docs are set at either of the Poles, and there are plenty of films involving mountain climbing that will do just the trick. The best of these films is the almost entirely re-enacted Touching the Void, which might not have been considered a documentary if it weren't for the structure and interview segments. The soundtrack with the whistling wind does it for me, though so do all the bluish opaque shots where it's difficult to make out the actors. You'll never catch me on an adventure like the one depicted here, almost as much because of the weather as the danger of falling. Alternate: if you want a chilly doc that isn't in the Arctic, Antarctic or in the Andes or other mountains, check out Barbara Kopple's second Oscar-nominated labor strike doc, American Dreams, which features a number of great cold-weather scenes.
categories Cinematical