'Picture of His Life': Film Review

Courtesy of Yonantan Nir
A fascinating portrait of a modern-day, benign Ahab.
6/19/2020

Yonatan Nir and Dani Menkin's documentary chronicles famed wildlife photographer Amos Nachoum's attempt to fulfill his career-long desire to photograph a polar bear while swimming with one in open water.

"Face to face, without protection." Yes, it's Dr. Anthony Fauci's biggest nightmare. But it also encapsulates the dangerous style of famed wildlife photographer Amos Nachoum, who specializes in underwater shots of some of the deep's most fearsome creatures. Picture of His Life, the punningly titled new documentary by Yonatan Nir (Dolphin Boy) and Dani Menkin (39 Pounds of Love), chronicles Nachoum's efforts to fulfill his career-long dream of photographing a polar bear while swimming with one in open water.

The Israeli-born Nachoum has earned great renown for his photos, which have appeared in such publications as National Geographic, Time, Life, The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler and many others. The documentary showcases numerous examples of his stunning work, including breathtaking photos of sharks, whales, crocodiles and an anaconda that looks like it could be the star of its own horror movie. There's also a deeply poignant shot of an orca whale desperately attempting to revive her dead calf by nudging it with her snout.

But one subject has eluded him. The 65-year-old Nachoum came close to photographing a polar bear earlier in his decades-long career, but was almost killed when it attacked him. The film follows him as he travels to the Canadian Arctic to try again, accompanied by a crew including the directors, underwater cinematographer Adam Ravetch and local Inuit guide Joe Kaludjak and his son.

Although polar bears may look adorable, they're in fact highly aggressive creatures who have no hesitation in including human beings in their diet. The number of polar bear attacks on people have increased dramatically in recent years, thanks to the reduction in sea ice caused by global warming that has in turn diminished the bears' food supply.

As the film proceeds, it provides personal background information on the taciturn photographer, who has no children, lives out of a suitcase and is, in the words of one commentator, "married to the ocean." Nachoum served in an elite commando unit during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War — an experience, it's implied, that produced lasting traumatic effects. He grew up with an abusive father, for whom age didn't lessen a judgmental attitude toward his son. Nachoum is seen visiting his elderly parents, and while his mother greets him warmly, his father launches into a diatribe about his son's life choices. "A man without responsibility is nothing," the father rails. "He made a fool of himself!" he adds, as Nachoum listens silently with an anguished expression on his face.

Comments about Nachoum, of both a personal and professional nature, are delivered in voiceovers by a variety of subjects, including his two sisters, friends, and such colleagues as oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau (son of Jacques Cousteau). Nachoum himself has little to say, although he does become emotional when talking about the importance of perseverance. "It's the essence of life," he declares.

Not surprisingly, it's an encounter with a female polar bear swimming with her two cubs that provides the documentary with its climactic high point. It's not much of a spoiler to report that Nachoum finally lands his coveted shots, and the incredible footage of the three bears vigorously swimming above the underwater camera proves surprisingly moving. But not as moving as the final shot, showing Nachoum silently having the last word in his lifelong struggle with his disapproving father.

Available at www.pictureofhislife.com
Production: Playmount Productions, Hey Jude Productions, Yonatan Nir Films

Distributor: Oded Horowitz/Panorama Films
Screenwriters-directors-producers: Yonatan Nir, Dani Menkin
Executive producers: Nancy Spielberg, Ori Eisen, Mirit Eisen, Lati Grobman, Christa Campbell, Andy Byatt
Directors of photography: Adam Ravetch, Yonatan Nir
Editors: Taly Goldenberg, Martin Singer, Shlomi Shalom
Composer: Christopher Gubisch

72 minutes