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Picture of His Life

Amos Nachoum searches for the elusive polar bear in Picture of His Life

Who: Dani Menkin, Amos Nachoum
What: Live Q&A about Picture of His Life (Yonatan Nir & Dani Menkin, 2019)
Where: Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan
When: Tuesday, June 23, free with advance RSVP, 8:30
Why: Captain Ahab had his great white whale in Moby-Dick, Captain Quint had his great white shark in Jaws, and Timothy Treadwell had his grizzly bear in Grizzly Man. People have been obsessed with animals in the wild since the dawn of humanity, as prey, for food, for sport, and for companionship. In Picture of His Life, directors Yonatan Nir and Dani Menkin track legendary Israeli-American underwater photographer Amos Nachoum as he attempts to cap his remarkable career by capturing, on film, a polar bear — “the world’s largest land carnivore,” opening text points out — while swimming with it in its native habitat. “I’ve been dreaming of this moment for a long time. After all these years of photographing in the wild, there is one subject that eludes me: that is photographing the polar bear in the water,” Nachoum admits.

So the filmmakers join Nachoum, his Emmy-winning cinematographer, Adam Ravetch, local Inuit guide Joe Kaludjak, and a few others on a five-day journey in the gorgeous Canadian Arctic. Nachoum, who turned seventy this year, is a Hemingway-esque figure, ruggedly handsome, introspective, a man of few words, devoted to his mission. “Amos, to me, is one of the best ambassadors of the ocean. There’s a message in every one of his pictures. Sometimes he takes huge amounts of risks to bring those images which nobody else has been able to capture,” says oceanographic explorer Jean Michel Cousteau, son of Jacques Cousteau. “Amos is like a scientist, observing carefully, and then reporting honestly,” National Geographic explorer in residence Dr. Sylvia Earle notes. “He doesn’t have a normal life,” explains underwater photographer Javier Mendoza, adding, “He’s married to the ocean.”

Nir (My Hero Brother, The Essential Link: The Story of Wilfrid Israel) and Menkin (39 Pounds of Love, On the Map), who previously collaborated on Dolphin Boy, about an Arab teenager who finds help from dolphins after being horrifically beaten, also speak with Scuba Diving Hall of Famer Howard Rosenstein, photographer J. Michael, Whitaker, The Blue Planet director Andy Byatt, shark expert Avi Klepfer, and Nachoum’s two sisters, Ilana Nachoum and Michal Gilboa, who discuss Amos’s difficult relationship with their father; some of his fellow soldiers talk about how serving in an elite commando unit in the 1973 Yom Kippur War affected them all. A self-described “soldier of the sea,” Nachoum is shown sitting alone in a dark room, projecting his wildlife photos from a carousel the way families look at vacation pictures together. “The polar bear for Amos is personal; it symbolizes something that makes it more than a picture of the polar bear. It’s a picture of his life,” Mendoza says.

The film is spectacularly photographed by Nir aboveground and Ravetch underwater; the small expedition seems to have the entire world all to itself. Editors Taly Goldenberg, Martin Singer, and Shlomi Shalom cut from the Canadian Arctic to Nachoum’s remarkable wildlife photos, from archival war footage to old snapshots and video of Nachoum as a boy and a young man. Nir manages to catch Nachoum, the 2019 SeaKeeper of the Year, several times by himself, lying on a rock, looking up at the sky or out at the ocean, a strong but quiet man still searching for purpose, still seeking approval as he risks his life yet again for what for him is more than just a photograph, a different kind of old man and the sea. Picture of His Life can be streamed via the Angelika or the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan; Menkin and Nachoum will participate in a live Q&A through the JCC on June 23 at 8:30 that is free with advance RSVP here.

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