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War Photographer

War Photographer
First Run Features
2001 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 96 min. / Street Date November 25, 2003 / 29.95
Starring James Nachtwey
Digital BetaCamCinematography Peter Indergand
MicroCam Cinematography James Nachtwey
Music Eleni Karaindrou, Arvo Part, David Darling
Produced, Directed and Edited by Christian Frei

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

War Photographer gives us an intimate look into the life of James Nachtwey, a photographer who set out in 1980 to devote his life to photographing war situations from the inside out, and has largely succeeded. Inspired by the pioneering photojournalists in Vietnam, Nachtway chased trouble spots for over twenty years. This on-the-spot docu follows him on assignment in Kosovo, The West Bank and Indonesia over a period of two years.

In excellently filmed and edited interviews Nachtway's associates try to characterize him as a fellow so reticent, verbal facts of his work have to be dragged out of him. A cameraman praises his willingness to put himself in risky situations. When an Indonesian man is being scapegoated, chased and murdered by a mob, Nachtway's in the middle of the fray instead of shooting from a far vantage point. He also doesn't see himself as isolated from the events he covers. He begged for the man's life, for instance, instead of standing back and photographing his death.

In the West Bank, we see Nachtwey standing in and among Palestinian youths who use slingshots against the Israeli Army. He's tear-gassed along with everyone else, and seems even more affected by the irritating smoke than the others. Yet when things look rough, he's always right up front, seeing where the bullets are coming from, looking for a dramatic angle that's more than the sum of its elements.

A chic photo editor doesn't disguise her affection for the quiet and unassuming photographer, who some day could likely not return from an assignment. Working out of New York, in a loft studio with an incredible view of the Brooklyn Bridge (is this too good to be true, or what?) Nachtway is shown comparing and evaluating stills for a proposed exhibit. Some of this action is clearly staged, but plays as authentic in tone and content. An editor for the German magazine Stern is shown concocting a photo layout of war horror across the world using Nachtwey photos, verbalizing the value of showing the truth in photo magazines and contrasting that with the responsibility of avoiding sensationalism.

The editor marvels about Nachtwey but also worries about him, and comes out with a quotable gem: The photojournalists who get shot are, "the ones on their first assignment and those who've been at it too long. Both are in danger of thinking they're bulletproof."

There's some stunning video shot in The West Bank where a handful of journalists are pinned down against a wall by enemy fire. Nachtway is among them when one man is hit. We don't know who's shooting but it looks plenty dangerous. The cover illustration (above) is no fake, and one of the tamer moments from the sequence.

We see Nachtway packing for anassignment and are given time to contemplate his preparation. He slings two cameras over one shoulder (he's lucky to have the kind of shoulders straps don't slip off!) and packs his little rolls of 35mm film into long rectangular cans that resemble thin ammo boxes. His cameras hang on straps of different lengths, presumably so they won't clack together.

In Kosovo, we accompany Nachtwey and other journalists as they suit up in plastic bio suits to witness the unearthing of a mass grave. In voiceover, Nachtwey explains that when he photographs grieving people point-blank, snapping away as they wail and moan in groups or individually, he knows they want him there, that they want their status as victims to be seen. Nachtway doesn't move fast or talk much, and he lets his essential respect and thoughtfulness be known before he shoots anything. The result is that we see people welcoming him, no matter how tough the situation is.

In Indonesia, we see some riot situations, but Nachtwey takes time out to cover an impoverished family that lives within inches of a busy railway line, literally making a shack home in the space between tracks. Babies crawl and play as main-line trains scream by. The father is a hardy fellow who begs at the roadside for a living - he lost one arm and one leg in a gruesome rail accident and somehow survived. He lovingly cares for his family even in his grotesquely mangled state. The family becomes a big photo layout that dramatizes the poverty in the region in a way that simple stated facts would not.

An interesting technical wrinkle that gives the docu a dramatic edge is a device called a MicroCam, that earns a main credit for a company called 'Swiss Effects.' The whole show is nicely shot in DigiBeta (about as good as one can get this side of HD) but much of the combat action is double-covered by this almost invisible mini-video attached to Nachtwey's own still camera. We see all the action he sees, with the top of the camera remaining static and in focus at the bottom of the frame, even when he changes lenses. Perhaps it's based on a flexible fiber optic system, for the view changes to see over the still camera back at Nachtwey as he shoots. With cameraman Peter Indergand shooting as well, the feeling of you-are-there reality is amazing. When have you seen pictures of a combat cameraman under fire, covered by two angles?

None of War Photographer is exploitative, and we don't see much of him directly shooting shocking material. Stills and video of an African famine underscore the fact that the agonizing victims we see are already in feeding camps, but are too far gone. Nachtway defends photojournalists by stressing that none of them find bleeding or starving people, click pictures and then walk away without helping.

Providing a nice coda is Nachtwey's preparation for a Manhattan exhibition and opening night. Easily the most impressive scene is Nachtwey's critique of a succession of large proof prints of a single shot. Between each must be hours of painstaking printing and developing work, but Nachtwey looks at the large prints (the first of which looks fine to me) and asks for tiny improvements. The printing expert carefully dodges the exposures on the paper with custom masks, turning each successive attempt into a work of art. It ain't One Hour Photo, in other words.

I was engrossed, frankly. Photojournalism is touted in all kinds of media, and is a favorite 'cool' vocation for movies good (Under Fire) and moronic (Convoy). This show strips away the bull**** and gets down to fascinating real-life issues of journalism. And it's a beautiful presentation as well.

First Run Features' DVD of War Photographer gives modern documentaries a good name. The superb photography and technical values make for arresting and attractive images, and First Run's endcoding and follow-through are first rate. It's a nice break from bleary DVCam docus. For extras there are interviews with the quiet Nachtwey and the director-producer-editor, a trailer, and run-downs on the crew and locations.

It's in finely-focused 16:9 and has subs in English, French, Spanish, German and Italian. I can't think of any title more essential for a journalism class, except maybe Sam Fuller's Park Row.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, War Photographer rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Interviews with director and subject James Nachtwey
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 8, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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