Picture of His Life, which got a screening to launch the 2019 Fall Fest at the Gershman Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, is a documentary about a man traveling to the northernmost reaches of the Earth to find a certain type of bear. That was also the premise of Werner Herzog's 2005 Grizzly Man, although at risk of spoilers, we can say this one has a much more cheerful ending.
Co-directed by Israeli filmmakers Yonatan Nir and Dani Menken, Picture of His Life appeared on November 9 at the Philadelphia Film Center, with Menken in attendance. The film, which has spent much of the last year on the national Jewish film festival circuit, documents the amazing adventures of Israeli-American wildlife photographer Amos Nachoum.
The quest of a lifetime
The title, needless to say, has a double meaning: capturing a photographer on a quest for the most important and difficult picture he's ever taken, as well as providing a portrait of the photographer’s own life. But the movie does a much more effective job of telling the former story.
Nachoum, who was in his late 60s at the time of filming, is a renowned nature photographer, known for capturing photos of rare and dangerous animals. The film depicts his expedition to the Canadian Arctic in order to become the first person ever to photograph a polar bear underwater, while swimming underwater himself. You could call the polar bear his white whale.
This involves not only traveling a great distance and braving both bitter cold and swarms of bugs, but also the inherent risk of getting the photo. We learn that polar bears are not only faster swimmers than humans, but are also our natural predators. And we learn that climate change is driving polar bears closer to human populations in recent years—leading to more and more headlines about people being eaten by the bears. Nachoum himself nearly died in an encounter with one, a decade before this film was made.
Picture of His Life invites us on a long journey northward with Nachoum and his team, a journey recalling both Jacques Cousteau's expeditions and their fictional counterpart in Wes Anderson's 2006 The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. Cousteau's son, Jean-Michel Cousteau, is among the interviewees for the film, which is dedicated to a pair of Nachoum's team members who died in an accident a year after filming.
Underwater cinematographer Adam Ravetch captured Picture of His Life's beautiful underwater video images.
A life out of focus
Wonderful as its storytelling is, the film stumbles a bit when it tells us Nachoum's life story.
Because the subject is a man of few words, much of the film’s first half features other interviewees—most notably, Nachoum’s sisters and his colleagues—telling his story. He does speak a bit on camera later on, but not a great deal, beyond describing himself as a "soldier of Mother Nature."
We glean that Nachoum was born in Israel, and that PTSD affected his family life—his father served in that nation’s War of Independence, and Nachoum himself served in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Soon after, he moved to the United States and, by the early 1980s, had established himself as a famous photographer.
We know that Nachoum never married and has no children, but we don't learn a lot about exactly how his background led him to the career he chose, nor do we hear much detail about his fraught relationship with his father, who died over the course of filming.
Even so, Picture of His Life is a riveting tale of an adventure on the edge of the world, which does what some of the best documentaries do: introduce us to a unique world that we knew little about.
What, When, Where
Picture of His Life. Directed by Yonatan Nir and Dani Menken. Release date to be determined. The Gershman Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival Fall Fest runs through November 23, 2019 at venues throughout the city and suburbs, including Philadelphia Film Center, the National Museum of American Jewish History, Ambler Theater, Lightbox Film Center, and the Free Library of Philadelphia. (215) 545-4400 or pjff.org/fall-fest/.