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War Photographer


War Photographer

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In order to show what a working day is like for combat-zone photojournalist James Nachtwey, documentarian Christian Frei attached a miniature video camera to Nachtwey's still camera, so that others could see what appears in the viewfinder before a picture gets snapped. The majority of the 90-minute running time of the Academy Award-nominated documentary War Photographer is dedicated to footage of Nachtwey in the field in Kosovo, the West Bank, Jakarta, and beyond (including back home in New York City, where he develops prints and prepares for a museum exhibit). The scenes of death, starvation, and destruction are affecting, but they don't say much about the actual subject of the film, and after a while, their presence in War Photographer seems to be justified merely by their innate drama. To be fair to Frei, the problem of exploiting violence lies at the forefront of his picture. The filmmaker interviews magazine editors, plus Nachtwey colleagues like CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour and Reuters video cameraman Des Wright, and all of them talk about the difficulty of informing the public about the horrors of the world without, in a way, dining out on the degradation that they observe every day. But Amanpour and Wright also overstate their own importance (and Nachtwey's), playing up the character of the worldly but compassionate frontline reporter as though channeling Edward R. Murrow. Their slightly phony commentary clashes with the taciturnity of Nachtwey, who offers little in the way of insight or anecdotes about his own life. If, just once, he smiled or told an off-color war story, he might become believably human. And maybe that's Frei's point: that 20 years on the job has hardened Nachtwey until he doesn't know what emotions are appropriate. If so, War Photographer could stand to have that theme made more overt. It could also stand more nuts-and-bolts information about the requirements of the job. The documentary raises the appropriate questions about the evolution of the journalism market away from reports of overseas turmoil, and about why people would allow their lowest moments to be photographed, but War Photographer doesn't say much about why Nachtwey's work is any better than what anyone else could get if dropped into the middle of a firefight. Nor does Frei acknowledge the irony of his own situation: documenting the documenter, and experiencing the same extreme conditions. War Photographer prefers the image of the solitary, sullen hero to the concept of under-the-gun camaraderie, and in that context, the miniature camera's records of amputees and grieving mothers is appalling window dressing.