Death In Gaza - The Film
That Cost A Life

By Philip Sherwell
The Telegraph - UK

"Watching this film is hugely emotional for me. You know that the end of the documentary is also the countdown to the end of James's life. You want to re-write the finish but you know you can't. You don't want to reach the credits."
Today, Sophy Miller will attend the Berlin Film Festival for the first public screening of her husband's last work. It should be a day of intense pride. It will also be a day of intense pain, for Death in Gaza is the documentary that James Miller, an award-winning British cameraman and filmmaker, was shooting when he was killed by an Israeli sniper in the Gaza Strip last May. He was 34 years old, and left Sophy with a three-year-old boy and a baby girl.
Even in those first terrible days after James's death, Sophy knew what she wanted to do: the film for which her husband had died had to be finished.
"It was my instinctive reaction that the film should be made," Sophy told me, when I spoke to her at the converted Devon farmhouse she and James bought shortly before his death. "It was the overriding feeling. His family felt the same way. James believed it was his job to help give a voice to people who wouldn't have one otherwise. He was doing that when he was killed. It would have been so wrong to let that stop him."
James had called her on the day of his death in his usual ebullient mood from the shell-scarred town of Rafah on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip. He and his colleague Saira Shah had been recording footage of Israeli bulldozers flattening alleged militants' homes. It was to have been the last day's filming on the trip, although James, always the perfectionist, was planning to return in search of more dramatic images. "He told me, 'We've got the story, but not the drama'," says Sophy, who met James 10 years ago when they were both students. "That was typical James."
The film, commissioned by the American cable company HBO, is a powerful study of the lives of three Palestinian children who are filled with hatred for the Israeli enemy, and cruelly manipulated and groomed for martyrdom by the militants who claimed to be their protectors.
Sophy has already seen the final edit. It does not close on James's death: it shows it. A local television freelance had been filming James, Saira and their translator, Aboud, as they walked, unarmed and without camera, towards an Israeli armoured vehicle less than 100 yards away to request permission to leave the area.
Saira is shouting "British journalists!" and James is shining a torch onto a white flag carried by Aboud. All are wearing flak jackets and helmets emblazoned with the letters "TV". It is dark but they would have been easily visible to the Israeli forces with night vision, who had been watching as they filmed earlier in the evening.
When a single shot rings out, the three stop still. "We presumed it was a warning shot from the Israelis," says Saira. "So we didn't try to run or hide. We stood there so they could check us out. That was our big mistake."
Twelve seconds later, you hear Saira Shah again shout "British journalists!" A moment later another lone shot rings out and the torch falls to the ground. James died on the spot, killed by a bullet that struck him in the throat in the small vulnerable spot just above the flak jacket's neck protection.
It is chilling footage - and it doesn't get easier with repeated viewing. "I am not sure that the best way to get over a traumatic loss is to watch it day after day after day," Saira told me when I met her in Soho last week, during the final days of sound-mixing, track-laying and technical screenings. "It still makes me completely sick."
At first she doubted that she could finish the film. "I just didn't want to make it. I thought it would be too painful and too hard. And it was such a huge and terrifying obligation to complete James's film. There was a terrible fear that we would let him down."
The turning point came on the day of James's requiem mass in the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Farm Street, Mayfair, last May. Hundreds of people came to celebrate his life and mourn his passing: as well as family and classmates from his old school Downside, the pews were packed with his friends in the media.
At the champagne reception at Claridge's - just the sort of over-the-top send-off James would have relished - his father again insisted that the film had to be completed. Later that evening, Saira was at a bar with Dan Edge, who had also been with them in Gaza when James died, Belinda Morrison, their colleague at Frostbite Films, and Misha Manson-Smith, a director and friend. She knew then she had no choice.
Sophy is delighted with the result. "It is full of compassion and power and energy," she told me. "I'm sure James would have been proud of them. It does great justice to his work."
James's parents, Colonel Geoffrey and Eileen Miller, will also be in Berlin next week, with his brother and two sisters, as well as the Frostbite team. It will inevitably turn into another party for the life, talent and fabulously dry wit of a man who invariably found humour as well as compassion in the bleakest of surroundings - as all of those lucky enough to have worked and played alongside him can vouch.
For Sophy, a portrait photographer before her children were born, Berlin will be a one-night trip only. On Thursday, she will be back looking after Alexander and Lottie at home in the countryside of north Devon. (They had moved there so James could pursue his obsession with surfing when he was back from the world's troublespots).
"Alexander is a bright child and I have to deal with his questions all the time. Most recently, he wanted to know why the Israeli soldier didn't know that James was his daddy and why he isn't now in prison.
"He also wants to do magic to bring his father back. I have to explain to him that life doesn't work like that. It is very hard. They have lost the total love and pride that James felt for them at every moment. With Alexander, I make myself talk about James and the things that we did. Otherwise, I fear that the memories will fade and it will be impossible to recapture them. But for Lottie, she will only ever know James through us.
"It is unbearably hard, but I hold it together for them. If I were to fall to pieces, they would have lost both of us. That would be too cruel."
It is mid-evening when we talk, after the excitement of bedtime, and Sophy's first free time to herself. Although she occasionally struggles to finish a painful sentence, her composure is remarkable.
"Sophy has been unbelievable," says Saira. "I would be calling her up, thinking I should be supporting her, and I'd be the one who cracked up and she would support me."
And just as Sophy was determined that the documentary that cost James his life should be made and that their two children should not be allowed to forget him, so she is equally determined that the Israeli soldier who killed him should be brought to justice.
James's film ends with the words, "Nobody has been held responsible for his death". The Israeli military police investigation has dragged on for months, but last week the family received its first indication that it could soon be concluded. A senior Israeli general told British officials that the inquiry was expected to be completed in four weeks, ending with either an indictment or the release of the report.
An important precedent was set when the Israeli military recently charged a soldier in connection with the shooting of Tom Hurndall, the British peace activist, who was shot in the head in Rafah less than a month before James was killed. Hurndall died last month after nine months in a coma.
For James's family and friends, the goal is simple. "Someone must be held accountable for this action," says Sophy. "James was wrongly and illegally killed. They can't hide from that. We have been endlessly patient with the Israelis, but we'll also be relentless in our pursuit of justice."
For although James Miller travelled to risky places, he did not take risky decisions. "Everyone in the industry knew that he was a safe pair of hands who always came back," says Sophy. "But sometimes the cards are just stacked against you. You come up against something you cannot factor in.
"That happened that night. James and Saira made the right decision. They did not try to sneak away down unlit back streets. They approached the armoured vehicle to explain that they wanted to leave. James expected the Israeli soldiers to behave like soldiers should. But that soldier didn't. We know what happened, but we don't know why."
The documentary's protagonist is Ahmed, a chatty, mischievous, football-loving 12-year-old, who has been sucked into the warped world of Palestinian extremism where the greatest honour is to die a martyr. He started working for the militants as a messenger and look-out, he explains, after he saw a friend killed by the Israelis as he was about to hurl a home-made grenade at them.
In remarkable footage of a gang of masked, Kalashnikov-toting militants, the leader of the paramilitaries jokes and hugs Ahmed, plays patticake with him and calls him "our little brother".
Yet when Saira asks him about the morality, never mind the dangers, of using a young boy as their messenger and look-out, he replies with shocking candour: "Don't worry about responsibility, sister. When we say goodbye to Ahmed, there are a thousand more kids like him."
What is not shown is the friendship that blossomed between James and Ahmed, even though they didn't share a language. At one stage, James even handed his camera gently to Ahmed whose face lit up when he looked through the viewfinder. "We were stunned," says Saira. "Nobody was allowed to touch James's camera. We certainly couldn't."
And that relationship may yet save Ahmed. For, in a postscript to the film, it emerges that the young boy who had previously said that he, too, hoped to become a martyr has, for now at least, left the militants. He wants to be a cameraman, he says.
© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2004.



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