War Photographer

on June 19, 2002 by Kim Williamson
   "In the past 20 years he has not missed a single war," says filmmaker Christian Frei of the subject of his Swiss-produced documentary "War Photographer," James Nachtwey. And therein lies the rub: Although addressed and answered as well as possible (otherwise, the horrors would go unrevealed to the world) by famed photojournalist Nachtwey in those relatively rare moments when the quiet American speaks, the question whether the incursion of his lens into the scenes of death and devastation he records is exploitive and immoral appears early here--in Kosovo, an older woman whose dead son is being brought to her weeps and weeps, and Nachtwey almost brutally stands directly before her, snapping and snapping away, the woman and her neighbors standing still together as if cats trapped by carlight--and late, when he works on dodging and burning a particular image to make it its most impressive. Addressed and answered, but not finally resolved, the question hangs over all of Nachtwey's close-up coverage of troubles in Indonesia, Palestine and Africa, and is endemic to his trade.

   As to the film itself, the first half-hour is almost silent; only in latter parts does Nachtwey speak to Frei's video camera. ("War Photographer" has been remastered to 35mm for theatrical release this summer.) Although some footage was produced via a micro-camera attached to Nachtwey's Canon, it rarely provides any special insight into his efforts--and Nachtwey's high-profile war work proves less moving than his simple human coverage, as of a Jakarta man who is raising his homeless family by the rails where one night he lost an arm and leg to a passing train. Frei's Betamax also serves him well in close-in situations with Nachtwey; a visit to an East Java sulfur mine, with both men engulfed in fumes, is particularly illuminating. Although commentary on Nachtwey is provided by the likes of CNN's chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour and Stern Magazine foreign editor Hans-Hermann Klare, in "War Photographer" it's the image that really tells the tale.    Directed and produced by Christian Frei. A First Run/Icarus release. Documentary. English- and German-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 96 min.

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