Israeli cinema, like Israeli television, is not what it once was.
And that’s a good thing.
Whether you see your Israeli films at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s upcoming film festival, or at the IAC Cinametec monthly film series at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, or on Netflix and Amazon Prime, you’ve come to expect first class acting, writing, and directing.
But polar bears?
Yes, a polar bear is the uncredited co-star of “Picture of His Life,” the 2019 film that opens the IAC Cinametec’s third season next Sunday. (See box.) Similarly, the gorgeous scenery is Canadian, not Mediterranean.
And not until 10 or 15 minutes into the film does a scene feature Hebrew dialogue requiring subtitles for English-speakers.
So what makes this an Israeli film?
For one thing, it was made by Israelis and funded in part by the Israeli government.
For another, it’s the story of an Israeli. Amos Nachoum is one of the world’s premiere wildlife photographers. The film tells of his effort to become the first still photographer to swim with a polar bear and take underwater shots of the world’s largest animal predator.
If you go to Israeli films to see pictures of Israel and to practice your Hebrew, this documentary may not be the film for you. (I can’t say for sure — to avoid spoiling the question of whether Mr. Nachoum succeeded in his quest, I didn’t watch the film to the end before writing this article.)
But if you want an exploration of the inner life of a man forged by two generations of Israeli wars — or you just want to see beautiful pictures of polar bears and sharks and other animals — “Picture of His Life” is for you.
Filmmaker Yonatan Nir came to filmmaking in a roundabout way — and in large measure, thanks to Mr. Nachoum. After finishing his army service, Mr. Nir spent seven years traveling the world.
“I met so many people and was attracted to their stories,” he said. “I became sad that I needed to move on. Then I realized that if I use a camera, I can actually capture the moments I have with the people I met along the way, and carry this memory with me.”
So he began to photograph, and then started selling his photographs to newspapers and magazines back home in Israel. He discovered underwater photography and worked as a diving instructor.
Then he was introduced to Mr. Nachoum.
“I was amazed by his work,” Mr. Nir said. “I was inspired by his character. I wanted to meet this man and understand his technique. How does he create this beautiful art?”
So they met. At first, the relationship was professional. “I was sending him my pictures. He was sending me some comments,” Mr. Nir said.
Then, back in Israel, Mr. Nir was injured in the Second Lebanon War, in 2006.
“When I got out of the hospital I got a phone call from Amos,” he said. “He was worried about me. A couple calls later, he invited me to spend two weeks with him as an assistant on a trip to Sri Lanka to photograph leopards and elephants. That’s where I understood better his personal story and realized I must make a film about him.
“I was curious about trying to understand how he creates his work — and also what leads someone at age 65 to want to swim with a polar bear. There have been 12 people who walked on the moon. And maybe five who have gone swimming with polar bears.”
Mr. Nir teamed up with a more experienced filmmaker, Dani Menkin. But when they took their idea for the film about Mr. Nachoum to Israeli broadcasters for funding, the broadcasters “looked at the budget and said ‘This is out of our league.’”
Instead, the duo worked on other films, starting with another ocean documentary, “Dolphin Boy,” a Jerusalem Film Festival award winner set in Eilat.
What made “Picture of His Life” so financially challenging?
It is set in the Canadian High Arctic.
“You have to send everything to there,” Mr. Nir said. “Generators, compressors, warm clothes, food for weeks, two boats, fuel. It’s super expensive and very complicated. You have a very short weather window to accomplish this shoot.”
Why did Mr. Nachoum want to to go to all that trouble? What explains his desire to swim with a polar bear?
“That’s the question that lingers throughout the film,” Mr. Nir said.
“He doesn’t like to share so much of his own past. He sent us to the people who tell his story. He was born in Jaffa in 1950, to a poor family of immigrants from Tripoli, Libya. His father was actually post-traumatic from the War of Independence, but back in those days no one knew what it was. It was something the family only found out much later, when this phenomenon became more known. Because of that, he was an aggressive father.
“Amos suffered from it much more than his sisters. Amos experienced a very difficult childhood, and he carries this pain with him. When he was 18, he was recruited to an elite commandor unit in the IDF and took part in one of the most horrifying and terrible battles of the Yom Kippur war.
“In 1975, he left Israel and went on a big trip, which pretty much is continuing until today,” Mr. Nir said. “Today he’s the owner of an amazing company, BigAnimals.com, which takes fortunate people to see whales and dolphins and sharks and orcas and polar bears face to face.
“What’s really inspiring about him is that he didn’t take the violence he was exposed to and turn it into more violence. He uses his camera to take this energy and transfer it into something different, something hopeful. Everything he seeks to do with animals he does in peace.
“My hope is that through the story of Amos, who loves the ocean and the big animals that live in it, we will be able to expose people to the things he loves so much, and people will fall in love with it themselves. Amos goes close to the animals to prove they’re not that dangerous. He tries to use images and stories to change our perception toward animals. We are much more dangerous than them. Take the sharks. Sharks kill six to eight men a year. We kill 100 million sharks in a year.
“One of the things Amos said all the time, ‘If you make the film too personal, people will think the film is about me. I want the film to be not about me, but about the animals and the nature that I love.’”
What: Screening of “The Photo of His Life” at the IAC Cinametec, preceded by a photography workshop with filmmaker Yonatan Nir and followed by a discussion with him.
Where: Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Avenue, Tenafly
When: Sunday, October 27 at 5:45, photography workshop. 7 p.m. reception. 7:30 screening.
How much: $25 for photography workshop; $20 for film.