Scene from "The Picture of His Life," one of the movies screening at the 2019 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival
Scene from "The Picture of His Life," one of the movies screening at the 2019 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

Underwater photographer dives deep to pursue his dream and heal his past

The ocean, in its vastness, suits Amos Nachoum perfectly. It’s big enough for him to hide.

Not from the great white sharks, orcas, manta rays and other large sea creatures he has obsessively sought out and photographed for four decades. But from Nachoum’s traumatic memories of the Yom Kippur War, and from his father’s impossible expectations.

“Amos has made a decision to put the war behind him, to put violence behind him, and to use the camera to tell a different story, a beautiful story, about men and nature,” Israeli documentary filmmaker Yonatan Nir says in a phone interview. “I think, in a way, he’s reframing his life with his camera.”

Nachoum’s complicated saga is rendered with gravity and grace in Nir and Dani Menkin’s “Picture of His Life,” which will get its North American premiere in this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on July 25 at the Albany Twin.

Not only that, but the film is in the marquee role of being the East Bay opening-night film. Both directors, Nachoum and executive producer Nancy Spielberg will be in attendance, with post-film treats from Saul’s Deli and Hagafen Cellars.

The foursome also will appear at the July 28 screening at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, with Menkin, who is based in Los Angeles, sticking around for the Aug. 4 screening at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

The epic, 71-minute documentary is structured around Nachoum’s summer 2015 expedition to the Canadian Arctic, more than 3,000 miles from his Pacific Grove home, to try and fulfill his ultimate dream of photographing polar bears underwater. (Hence the second meaning of the film’s title.)

Nir and Menkin originally wanted to make a documentary a decade ago about Nachoum, a world-famous wildlife photographer and environmentalist who was born in Jaffa (and first worked as a war photographer in Israel), but that undertaking proved too expensive. Instead they made “Dolphin Boy,” a redemptive portrait of a traumatized young Arab healed by swimming with dolphins in the Red Sea that earned much acclaim globally.

As it turned out, the extra years were essential, and not just to raise the funds for four Jews (including veteran underwater cinematographer Adam Ravetch) and six Inuits to trek to, and film at, remote Baker Lake. The filmmakers’ taciturn and enigmatic subject had to reach a point where he was willing to confide his deeply hidden feelings and memories.

“He really didn’t talk until we got to the Arctic,” Menkin recalls in a phone interview, “and that’s when he started to open up.”

Adds Nir: “Amos needed time to open up and to be able, finally, to let us deep into his soul and to tell it for the first time.”

After the Arctic trip, Nachoum gave surprisingly candid interviews to the Israeli press about both his postwar trauma and his father, who had fought in the War of Independence. So his way of dealing with his past continued — and continues — to expand.

There’s no question that the process of making “Picture of His Life” contributed to Nachoum’s evolution. Nir and Menkin visited his father in the hospital near the end of his life, capturing a raw, powerful moment. They subsequently showed the footage to Nachoum with the understanding that they would include it in the film only if he gave his consent.

Nachoum was touched by the scene, and agreed to its inclusion. He even enacted an onscreen form of reciprocation to complete the circle.

“We were able to create this closure, between the father and the son, but only through the film,” Nir says. “It never really happened face to face.”

Some might recall this film playing in the Carmel Jewish Film Festival in March, but that version was an unfinished “work in progress,” according to Menkin, shown in part so Nachoum, 69, who lives about two miles from where the film was screened, could see it. The world premiere occurred May 23 at the Docaviv doc-fest in Tel Aviv, and the upcoming showing in Albany “will be our official international premiere,” Menkin notes.

While the personal story in “Picture of His Life” is wrenching, the environmental story is pretty potent, too. Nachoum’s desperate, late-career pursuit of the polar bear goes deeper than the creed he states in the film, “I see myself as a soldier for Mother Nature.”

“At the end of the day, Amos was looking for his family,” Menkin says. “His family is the universe. It’s Mother Nature. He found his family and lives with it in harmony, and that’s what he wants us to do.”

“Picture of His Life”

6:30 p.m. July 25 at Albany Twin; 2:15 p.m. July 28 at Castro Theatre, S.F.; 4:15 p.m. Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael. Directors, subject and executive producer will appear at Albany and S.F. screenings; director Menkin at San Rafael screening. In English, Hebrew and Inuit with English subtitles. Not rated, 71 minutes. sfjff.org

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.