War Photographer (January 4/04)
War Photographer, a documentary by Christian Frei, follows photojournalist James Nachtwey as he travels to various hot-spots and takes pictures. It's a simple enough concept for a film, but Frei does a superb job of allowing the audience to really understand what it takes to live this kind of a life. Nachtwey proves to be a fascinating subject; quiet and soft spoken, it's almost immediately evident that he's not entirely comfortable discussing his craft on camera.
And indeed, he often doesn't. Nachtwey instead makes reference to his emotions while shooting and offers his take on the volatile situations he's seen first hand. In referring to Rwanda and the slaughter of thousands there, Nachtwey makes it clear that a big part of his job is distancing himself from the acts he's witnessing. Though he can't understand how humans are capable of inflicting that kind of brutality on one another, he talks about the importance of documenting such atrocities. Philosophical musings are the order of the day here, and while the potential for boredom is certainly there, Nachtwey is such a compelling speaker that it never feels as though we're being lectured to.
If Frei had just allowed Nachtwey to talk about his experiences for an hour and a half, that probably would've been enough to keep things interesting. But Frei actually follows Nachtwey on the job (he spend two years with the photographer), going so far as to attach a little camera to Nachtwey's lens. As a result of that bizarre innovation, we're able to see exactly what Nachtwey sees when taking a picture. And though it's somewhat silly and occasionally distracting, Frei smartly doesn't overuse the technique. Like his subject, Frei's not afraid to get as close to the action as he needs to (dictated, of course, by Nachtwey). This leads to moments of breathtaking visual splendor, such as a trip to smoke-infested sulfur mines and a train that goes roaring by mere feet from where a woman is preparing a meal.
War Photographer also contains input from other similarly employed individuals, including CNN's international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, and Reuters videographer Des Wright. Though they do talk about Nachtwey (Wright even offers a stunning anecdote about Nachtwey's reaction to a man about to be beaten to death), Frei presses these folks for information about their approach to the work. Differing opinions about the job gives the film a nice balance; while others need a beer after visiting a horrific war zone, Nachtwey chooses to drink some water and go to sleep.
But where the movie really excels is as a showcase for Nachtwey's amazing photographs, which are offered ample screen time. His pictures take the viewer right into any given situation, from a cholera epidemic to a deadly famine, and often tend to be fairly difficult to look at. It's not a career most people would voluntarily choose, but Frei has done a fantastic job of allowing us a bird's-eye-view of Nachtwey's life.