Dani Menkin and Yonatan Nir’s documentary Picture of His Life follows celebrated wildlife photographer Amos Nachoum as he embarks on an elusive quest. Nachoum specializes in photographs of dangerous, often large aquatic animals: leopard seals, Nile crocodiles, anacondas, and various whales, among many other species. The figurative white whale of Nachoum’s career, though, is the polar bear, a fast, intelligent, elegant, and massive creature that spends much of its life at sea and can swim twice as fast as a fit human. As the filmmakers inform us, the polar bear is also one of the few animals that actively hunts and eats humans—a pivotal piece of information that largely prevents the documentary from succumbing to the cuddliness that can mar productions concerned with nature. In fact, a polar bear once nearly killed Nachoum on a previous expedition.
Cuddliness would cheapen the honorable power of Nachoum’s photographs, many of which are featured in Picture of His Life. The pictures convey a remarkable sense of movement, often capturing animals as they’re darting toward Nachoum’s camera. Nachoum appears to truly see his subjects, whom he sometimes catches in astonishingly privileged moments, such as a heartbreaking photo of a mother Orca attempting to revive its dead calf. The pictures are gentle—a word which could also be applied to Nachoum’s presence in the film. The sixtysomething Nachoum is a stout Israeli of few words who can scuba dive with the vigor of someone decades his junior. He’s a man of nature, a daring explorer, yet he doesn’t really emit a macho vibe. Nachoum has a vulnerability that he also manages to locate in animals without diminishing their wildness, their capacity for violence.
Menkin and Nir follow Nachoum to the Canadian Artic, where he assembles a team that includes an acclaimed underwater cinematographer, Adam Ravetch (who shot portions of this documentary), and an Inuit named Joe Kaludjak, an elderly, hearty man of the earth who’s lived on this land all his life and knows it like the back of his hand. This crew, which also includes Joe’s son, as well as Nir, a former diving instructor and photojournalist himself, is a likeable ensemble, suggesting a real-life version of the motley groups that often drive the plots of fictional adventure films. Menkin and Nir document a number of unforgettable details over the course of the journey, such as Joe carving up and drying fish to feed everyone during their five-day expedition. Most spectacular, though, is the underwater footage, which the filmmakers render in pristine cinematography that mirrors and honors the hyper-clarity of Nachoum’s own images, as well as the danger involved in capturing them. Swimming underwater in scuba gear, with a camera that’s protected by a device that suggests an aquatic tripod, Nachoum is awesomely exposed to whatever may object to his presence.
As beautiful as it often is, Picture of His Life has a subtext that girds Nachoum’s adventure in tragedy. Due to the melting sea ice across the Arctic, polar bears are forced to scavenge the rocky land—an action which the filmmakers capture here—or swim up to a 100 miles looking to feed in the ocean as a replacement for the food they once caught beneath and around the sea ice. (These animals are so powerful that they can take down certain kinds of whales.) Of all the fierce creatures seen here, the film’s most terrifying images are those of craggy mountains where ice should be. This knowledge of a corroding planet, of a fading way of life, seems to inform the stoic sadness of Nachoum and Kaludjak.
Because this lovely, poignant film’s images speak for themselves, we don’t need the touching yet formulaic voiceover interviews in which experts testify to Nachoum’s greatness. And the man’s troubled relationship with his father, who disapproved of Nachoum’s occupation, as well as his departure for America, is too adamantly connected with Nachoum’s quest to photograph a polar bear. Nachoum himself has resisted this notion in interviews, suggesting that he’s trying to “shoot” in a way that preserves life in contrast to the shooting he did as an elite commando in the Yom Kippur War. Fortunately, Menkin and Nir capture these sentiments too, which contextualize Nachoum’s haunting presence without cheapening its mystery. He’s a man of violence who’s trying to re-channel said violence into empathy, capturing animals that are perishing from the supreme atrocity of global annihilation.