Fiction films about combat journalists have ranged from the brilliant (Roger Spottiswoode’s 1983 “Under Fire”) to the dreadful (last spring’s “Harrison’s Flowers”), but they’re all rather upstaged by this remarkable documentary about James Nachtwey. He’s been taking incredibly powerful, searing photographs “up close and personal,” as they say, in the world’s most brutal trouble-spots over the last twenty years, and Christian Frei’s picture takes us along with him to such locales as Kosovo, Rwanda, the Palestinian territory and Indonesia. Frei manages to capture the danger and poignancy of Nachtwey’s work with considerable success. Cinematographer Peter Indergand has done a fine job of following his subject’s peregrinations into some extraordinarily threatening situations–including a tear-gas assault on rioters in Ramallah–but some of the footage is also done with a microcamera fitted onto Nachtwey’s own instrument, which allows us virtually to see what he does through his lens. The effect is extremely strong.
Frei’s goal is also to penetrate Nachtwey’s psyche, to come to some understanding of what kind of man he is and what motivates him; so we’re given snippets of conversations with him and of interviews with editors and colleagues who work with him. In this respect, however, the makers are frustrated to a certain extent by the photographer’s very controlled, thoughtful persona. That’s not to say that he’s unemotional or detached–indeed, his coverage of Indonesian poverty and his remarks about the levels of inhumanity he’s witnessed utterly belie such a notion–but he’s still a remarkably quiet, undemonstrative person. A sequence that shows him helping to prepare prints of his photos for a gallery showing demonstrates his intense desire to insure that his work be exhibited in the best possible form, but even here the passion is muted by his modest demeanor and a refusal to indulge in any sort of histrionics. The overall portrait is of a man of keen intellect, deeply troubled by the pain and horror commonplace in the world but committed to documenting it honestly and without the melodramatic flourishes of so many contemporary reporters (just think of someone like Geraldo Rivera), whatever the danger to himself. Nachtway is genuinely a person who places the importance of what he’s recording above his own personal recognition–he’s a driven man, but not ostentatiously so–and as a result the portrait of him is necessarily more low-keyed and deliberate that one might have expected, given the subject.
“War Photographer” is a film at once depressing and uplifting–depressing in terms of the sad, often horrifying subjects of Nachtwey’s photographs but uplifting in terms of his commitment and integrity. It may often be difficult to watch, but its impact is substantial.