Docaviv 2019: Picture of His Life

Amos Nachoum – Picture of His Life/Photo: Susan Friedman

Exhilarating, moving, and suspenseful, Picture of His Life, a documentary on wildlife photographer Amos Nachoum by Yonatan Nir and Dani Menkin (co-directors of Dolphin Boy), is the story of one man’s quest, that resonates with reflections on our place in nature, and the changing life on the planet. Amos Nachoum is world renown for his breath-taking photographs of orcas, sharks, leopard seals and others, taken while free-diving, swimming right up to the animals with his camera.

Yet despite all his achievements, there remained a lack and a strong desire. “There is one image that has eluded me,” Amos says in the film, and that is to photograph a polar bear while swimming alongside it, “face to face in the water.” A previous attempt, made over a decade ago, was a narrow escape for Amos, as the aggressive polar bear dove down after him. The current documentary follows Amos as he makes one more attempt to realize his dream, tracking polar bears in the Canadian Arctic. He is accompanied on this five day expedition by filmmaker Adam Ravetch, and members of the Kaludjak family, who are their local guides and boat crew. The dramatic, open terrain of the Arctic is the backdrop for the journey, and the narrative of their adventures is interspersed with the story of Amos Nachoum’s life.

Amos’s rugged, chiseled features convey strength and resolve, while his dark eyes burn with an inner fire. He is a man of few words; his photographs are his means of expression.  When he chooses to speak, his words are direct and concise. “It’s so raw,” he says as he surveys the landscape, and his enthusiasm is palpable. A fascinating array of his work is included in the film, and it is thrilling to see them on the big screen; about as large as life, and as close as most of us will come to orcas, sharks and Anacondas. Watching, one cannot help but wonder how he finds the courage, the daring, to confront these dangers.

The film moves between the 5-day expedition and the story of Amos’s life, told primarily through audio interviews with his sisters, friends, and fellow researchers and photographers, while the visuals include footage of Israel in the 50s and Yom Kippur War, as well as photos from Amos’s youth. One emerges with a nuanced portrait of a complex individual, who must, inevitably retain an aura of mystery.

The expedition in the Canadian Arctic is an exciting adventure and the viewers are along for the ride. The cinematography and editing are excellent, one can almost feel the 1°C temperature of the air, the rocky ground and blue waters merging into endless sky. The film offers several perspectives as one sees the arctic through the eyes of Amos, and of the Kaludjak family, members of the Inuit community for whom this place is home.

Swimming with the polar bears is dangerous because they are extremely powerful and aggressive. Climate changes, resulting in receding ice, means that the bears now have to search longer and harder for food, and there is a clear relationship between hunger and aggression. Nanuuq is the Inupiaq word for polar bear, and it is apparent in the film that climate and cultural changes are affecting the Inuit way of life. The film reveals the majesty and power of nature, as well as its mutability and vulnerability.

Viewing images of war, from the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in relation to news articles describing polar bear attacks on humans, offers an alternative perspective on aggression and violence. It is an opportunity to reflect on our place in nature, to examine what human culture typically accepts as normal, and what we consider too risky or dangerous. Seeing nature through the eyes and lens of Amos Nachoum, one begins, if only for a moment, to see things differently.

Screening times:

Thursday, May 23 at 17:00, cinematheque 3, in the presence of the filmmakers and Amos Nachoum; Thursday, May 30 at 15:15, cinematheque 1, in the presence of the filmmakers; Saturday, June 1 at 10:00, cinematheque 1, in the presence of the filmmakers. Tickets may be ordered online via the Docaviv website.

Picture of His Life

Israel/Canada/United States 2019, 71 min, Hebrew, English and Inuit, Hebrew & English subtitles

Directors, Script & Research: Yonatan Nir, Dani Menkin

Production: Yonatan Nir, Dani Menkin, Nancy Spielberg, Ori Eisen, Mirit Eisen, Roger Fishman

Production Company: Yonatan Nir Films, Hey Jude Productions, Playmount Productions

Editing: Tali Goldenberg, Martin Singer, Shlomi Shalom

Cinematography: Yonatan Nir, Adam Ravetch

Soundtrack: Philippe Gozlan

Music: Chris Gubisch