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With: James Nachtwey, Christiane Amanpour, Hans-Hermann Klare, Christiane Breustedt, Des Wright, Denis O'Neill
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Christian Frei
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 96
Date: 01/01/2001

War Photographer (2001)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Snap Happy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

We rarely hear from the war photographer himself. He's a rather stoic character, a handsome man with stylish silvery hair and a Buddha-like calm. Even though he's seen a thousand horrible things and a thousand beautiful things in his lifetime, he prefers to let his pictures speak for themselves. But when others speak of James Nachtwey they call him the most celebrated photojournalist in the country. Now he's the subject of a new documentary, War Photographer, by Christian Frei. The film opens today at the Opera Plaza and next week at the Rafael Film Center. War Photographer tracks Nachtwey's remarkable career through interviews and photographs, but most memorably by watching the man at work. Director Frei installs miniature digital video cameras on Nachtwey's still camera, so they can approximate what the photographer sees as he's shooting. This gimmick feels odd and off-putting at first, but it soon becomes indispensable.

The image that struck the hardest comes near the end of the film, showing Nachtwey shooting pictures of sulfur-mine workers. These poor individuals trudge about with horrible yellow gas swirling all around them. Nachtwey, perhaps only there for a few hours (or days at the most), has trouble with the stuff stinging his eyes. Imagine the lives of the people who work there for years. Best of all, the film knows it doesn't have to say a word to enhance this sequence. The soundtrack is nearly silent -- everything is in the images. Another great sequence shows Nachtwey photographing an Indonesian family living alongside railroad tracks and using cardboard boxes for beds. The father got drunk one night and lost an arm and a leg under the train. Nachtwey shows the family's daily life, bathing, eating, etc. The photographer explains that the man never once asked him for help or a handout.

But mostly, we see the fruits of Nachtwey's going into battle. "If your pictures are not good enough, you're not close enough" is his motto. We see him hacking tear gas out of his lungs, and hear the story of how he tried to save a man from an angry mob, only to watch helplessly as he was beaten to death. It's an incredible life story, and yet, despite having unfettered access, director Frei does not -- cannot -- let us know who Nachtwey really is.

"I'm all talked out," Nachtwey confides to his best friend during a New York exhibition of his life's work. Indeed, he rarely laughs or tells specific stories. He merely talks in broad generalities about what he thinks it all means. We can assume that Nachtwey has simply shut himself off rather than face all the misery and brutal deaths he has seen during his 20-year career. You have to admire the man's calm. It's a wonder that he's not a raging alcoholic. One interviewee explains that two kinds of photographers get killed in battle: greenhorns who are on their first assignment and old-timers who believe that they're bulletproof. Maybe Nachtwey has seen and tasted too much of death and has simply resigned himself to the fact that it's there for good; death practically lives with him.

War Photographer was an Oscar nominee earlier this year (it lost to Murder on a Sunday Morning), and it's a worthy tribute to a man and his colleagues who risk their lives to bring us the true story of the world -- leaving them to forever ponder the question of whether or not they're making a living from other people's misery.

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