Review: Erebus – Into the Unknown
Erebus: Into the Unknown is a feature length documentary that finally tells the story of the tragic crash in 1979 of a sightseeing plane into Mount Erebus , from the point of view of the ordinary New Zealand policemen who were sent out to identify the victims bodies. Directed by Charlotte Purdy, the film is a mixture of interviews with a few of the original policemen, and a stunningly shot, yet realistic, dramatic reconstruction of their experiences.
This documentary brings to light a truly incredible and sad story. When the sightseeing airplane mysteriously went down on November 28th in 1979, it crashed not only into the side of a mountain, but on to one of the most hostile places on earth – Antarctica. What is amazing is that the people chosen to then go and identify the 257 bodies from the crash were ordinary New Zealand policemen. As these men say themselves, they had never had any training in snowy conditions and had no idea what it was going to be like. They were all very apprehensive, and even wondering if they’d return home at all.
One policeman Stuart Leighton, who seems to be the main focus of the drama side of the documentary, was only twenty-two years old when he was sent out as part of the Disaster Victim Identification team, and he spoke about how hard it was mentally, facing such a loss of life.
In fact all the policemen confess that after that job, they could not return to normal, that the experience had basically traumatised them. And yet in the interviews they also speak about the experience with some pride, because in the end they got the job done despite the environment they were thrown into, and the bodies were returned to their families.
The filmmakers should also be given praise, not just for giving a voice to these men and their story, but doing it a way that comes across as straight forward, honest and subtle. The dramatic reconstructions are not over-emotion or over-dramatised, and the detail that has gone into recreating the crash site is impressive. You can easily forget that the scenes are fake and people on screen are actors, as the action fits seamlessly with the interviews.
I think this documentary is a must see. It tells not only an incredible true story about people who did their job, despite being out of their depth in terms of the environment they had to work in, and the I would say, the amount of loss they had to face. It also tells the story in subtle and sensitive way, with carefully reconstructed scenes that matched the tone of the people telling the story.