Friday, June 19, 2020

Picture of His Life: Amos Nachoum’s Polar Bears

Coca-Cola probably has piles of consumer research that proves everyone loves polar bears, but for Israeli marine wildlife photographer Amos Nachoum, it is a different sort of love. They are like his great white whale. For years, he has wanted to capture photos of them swimming underwater. Yonatan Nir & Dani Menkin follow Nachoum on the expedition that might be his last, best chance to take his career capstone polar bear shots in Picture of His Life, which releases virtually today in New York (in conjunction with the JCC Manhattan).

Polar bears are dangerously fast swimmers, who are probably more comfortable in water than on land. They are not scared of humans—according to the film, they are the only animal that has people below them in their food chain. That makes Nachoum’s unprotected and completely exposed methods particularly risky. That is also why his pictures are often so vibrant and dynamic.

To take polar bear pictures, you have to go where the polar bears are: the Canadian Arctic. There is a sequence that shows Nachoum’s journey from Israel to the far arctic north in a style reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but the arrow for his journey seems to keep going and going. When he finally reaches base camp, his Inuit guide Joe Kaludjak and his son lead Nachoum and company on excursions that are more like commando raids, except it will only really be the photographer facing danger, rather than their targets.

In fact, Nachoum nerves were hardened as a member of the IDF’s heroic Sayeret Shaked special forces during the Yom Kippur War. Frankly, Nachoum does not say very much throughout the film. His admirers and sisters somewhat imply he prefers the company of wildlife, due to his wartime experiences and decidedly strained relationship to his parents, but Nir & Merkin do not belabor the issue.

Of course, the real point of their documentary is the chance to see marine wildlife, particularly the polar bears. There are some incredible images here, including Nachoum’s stills (he already had some terrific shots of polar bears on land) and footage shot by Nir and co-cinematographer (and on-camera commentator) Adam Ravetch. Picture of His Life will definitely not hurt the sale of Nachoum’s books and prints.

At seventy-five minutes, Picture is a relatively short doc, but that is just as well, because it does everything it ought to do with straightforward economy. This is a solid nature film that simultaneously profiles an accomplished Israeli artist-naturalist. Recommended without reservations for anyone interested in the man or the bears, Picture of His Life releases virtually today (6/19), in New York and other cities.