Alone On The Ice: Erebus Operation Overdue

The docudrama commemorating 35 years since NZ’s deadliest peacetime disaster is an extraordinarily slick and moving piece of filmmaking, all the more so for zeroing in an overlooked slice of the aftermath.


The Documentary Edge Festival has done something unusual but sensible this year. Last Wednesday’s opening night was prefaced with the awards, rather than treating the gongs as some sort of pyrrhic victory lap after everyone had (or hadn’t) seen the top films. The list is at the end of this post – though it’s not the definitive list of documentaries worth seeing in the next week, it demonstrates a certain pragmatism. These are worthy features that might otherwise go unwatched – by having viewers go into the season with a ready-made jurors’ shortlist, the organisers have hopefully given themselves and their selection a boost.

Charlotte Purdy and Peter Berger’s Erebus: Operation Overdue shouldn’t need the help. Given its NZ On Air Platinum funding and the subject matter, it’s virtually guaranteed a second life on television later in the year. What’s more impressive is how this anniversary gesture chooses to avoid the ghoulish minute-by-minute black box forensics or courtroom theatrics of what went wrong. These hang at the edges of a very simple and compounding tragedy – eleven undertrained men who got sent into a hostile white void for two weeks to gather the dismembered remains of their fellow New Zealanders.

Air NZ Flight 901 plunged into the side of Mt Erebus at an altitude of about 460 metres on 28 November 1979. The country had no formal team of post-crash recovery experts, and so an assortment of police who had undertaken Disaster Victim Identification courses with mannequins and ancillary DSIR staff were ferried to Antarctica in a Hercules to collect the dead.

Many plane crashes end with the vaporising force of an uncontrolled fall of several thousand feet, or a white-hot incineration, plane and all. Few end up with as many remains to retrieve, and fewer still have involved retrieval in a place so viciously beautiful, so indifferent to human life. For all these reasons, Erebus’s recovery mission is singular and harrowing, and not just from an NZ perspective. Around 15 minutes in, there’s a vertiginous tracking shot where an officer is taught to survive on the ice. Let go on a steep incline, he scrabbles desperately, accelerating at speed, reaching for anything to stay his freefall. It’s a fitting metaphor for the experience of the four policemen Purdy gets to talk.

The officers themselves (Bob Mitchell, the recovery team leader; Stu Leighton, barely 22 at the time; Greg Gilpin, and Mark Penn) have been interviewed extensively. The extent to which their testimony shapes the narrative spine of the film means that the ‘drama’ aspect of the ‘docudrama’ could easily flirt with a sort of intrusive redundancy. Instead, it’s a masterclass in economy in multiple senses. A slight first-draftiness of the opening quarter feels somehow underdone, a lot of placeholdery “Alright mates?” and “Good on yas” from the actors in lieu of actual character development. The creators were right to hold their nerve – the development comes from the original voices, not their likenesses, and each account of the events fleshes out the other in one of the best mixes of dramatic reconstruction and face-to-face interview I’ve seen.

The economy extends to the way a few New Zealand-based sets and some good costuming effectively realise the country circa ’79. That conjures up the dream of a HBO-style flagship drama set in Muldoon’s Wellington, but it’s the crash site which really lets us have it. The original team worked to free body parts from a 700m by 120 m surface area. A little CGI and a lot of inventive shooting makes the film show the same in an area that from Purdy’s account was only 30 metres squared. The side of Roundhill is transformed into a eerie white expanse that seems to stretch on for miles. I mentioned the tracking shot sliding down the ice – another couple of camera tricks played on us later on are equally unsettling. From the permanent daylight, to the constant circling of scavenger birds, this is the stuff of nightmares. We’re left to only imagine the other senses – the smell of burnt flesh, the lacquer of human grease on gloves – from Gilpin and Leighton. In other words, we’re lucky.

Working up to twelve hours at a time (36 non-stop for the last shift), the recovery mission was virtually a world of its own to the surrounding events, and it wisely places most of its focus on that experience rather than trying to be the final word on the disaster. But a key interview with a senior Air NZ manager means that towards the end of the picture, we’re cross-cutting between the men on the ice and men shredding documents and chain-smoking at the airline’s offices. It's the start of a chain of dissembling that has left the causes of the crash hazy to this day.

Today, the national carrier’s practice of sending one-day round trips to Antarctica for low-altitude sightseeing seems frivolous at best and foolhardy at worst. Air New Zealand claimed that their planes never flew lower than 6000 feet, and that promotional material that claimed otherwise was mere puffery. Later, a series of pilots would inform a Royal Commission that they had flown as low as 1500 feet – a height fit for cruising into a sheer cliff - with Air NZ’s full knowledge and consent.

More damning is the notebook of co-ordinates Gilpin retrieved from the pilot’s body. Gilpin and Leighton insist it left the site full of looseleaf – by the time Air NZ was required to supply it to a formal inquiry, it was a husk of an exhibit, the contents mysteriously destroyed on impact. It’s a final gutwrenching turn in the account, as is the fact that through neglect or embarrassment, the officers on the ground weren’t recognised formally for their efforts for nearly 30 years.

That’s a long time to labour in silence. Both Gilpin and Leighton came to the stage to a resounding ovation after the premiere. Leighton, stammering and visibly moved, described how he felt like a “gutter rat” in the intervening decades. Medals can be symbolic. Coping with a breakdown years later, the deafening absence of a medal sends a message too. He recounts to us how what hit him hardest was a diary cut off mid-entry, found near one of the bodies. “The person had recorded every step in this worldwide holiday, and the last part was them recording seeing Antarctica for the first time. The last words were ‘Gee, it’s great to be alive.’”

Following Pike and the CTV building collapse, the note of anger and betrayal that Operation Overdue concludes on is particularly acute. It’s also a chastening reminder that the expectation for transparency and accountability in government trumps any ideological lens – privatisation and deregulation swirl in the background of our recent calamities, but Air New Zealand was wholly state-owned in 1979, and strong government oversight didn’t translate to candour or honesty. For all that, the story of the people left picking up the pieces has been overlooked too often and for too long.

It’s fundamentally decent of Purdy and Berger’s film to remedy that, but it’s a hell of a bonus that this documentary is so well-assembled. If you’ve long shrugged off airplane documentaries as cut-price Discovery Channel compilations of mystery polygons, this is an excellent corrective.

Erebus: Operation Overdue screens again at Documentary Edge Auckland on Monday 2 June, before playing at the Wellington leg of the festival.

The winners of last Wednesday’s awards are as follows:

Best New Zealand Feature: Erebus: Operation Overdue (NZ, Charlotte Purdy/Peter Burger)
Best International Feature: God Loves Uganda (USA, Roger Ross Williams)
Best New Zealand Short: Close to Home (NZ, Bertie Plaatsman)
Best International Short: Junior (Belgium, Sien Versteyhe)

Best World Cinema: The Devil’s Lair (South Africa, Riaan Hendricks)
Best Sign of the Times: Happiness (France/Finland, Thomas Balmes)
Best Game On: Pole, Dancer, Movie (Israel, Isri Halpern)
Best Human Rights: Kids for Cash (USA, Robert May)
Best Generation Next: Rich Hill (USA, Andrew Droz Palermo/Tracy Droz Tragos)
Best The American Dream: American Promise (USA, Joe Brewster/Michele Stephenson)
Best Culture Vultures: Life Itself (USA, Steve James)

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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