Dirs: James Miller/ Misha Manson-Smith. UK/US. 2004. 80mins
James Miller was considered one of his generation's most observant witnesses to war. An Emmy-winning journalist who had reported from Bosnia, Lebanon and Iraq, he was shot dead by an Israeli soldier in May 2003. Miller was just 34 and had been working on a brace of documentaries covering the children caught in the crossfire of the conflict between Palestine and Israel. His work went unfinished but his killing lends added poignancy to Death In Gaza.
The documentary itself offers a disturbing, eye-opening account of young Palestinian lives trapped in a circle of hatred that begins in the classroom and ends in martyrdom. Made for HBO, the film's natural home is the small screen but it merits further Festival exposure and might even secure theatrical interest in territories where Oscar-winners like Bowling For Columbine and The Fog Of War have expanded the audience for documentaries.
A more conventional piece of work than the films by Michael Moore or Errol Morris, Death In Gaza is a perceptive and compassionate piece of reportage in the tradition of television standard bearers like Sixty Minutes in America or Panorama in the UK. It doesn't seek to editorialise or take a broader view of history but works primarily on a human interest level. It is not about the rights and wrongs of the conflict but the experiences and mindset of those who endure it on a daily basis.
Understated and unvarnished, the film lets the subjects speak for themselves as we are introduced to 12 year-old Ahmed, his best friend Mohammed and Najla who is thinking of becoming a lawyer. Najla is only sixteen and has lost eight members of her family over the past three years. Ahmed and Mohammed are cheeky, football-loving adolescents of a type that can be seen the world over but their hatred of the Israelis is already fully formed. They treat hand grenades and rocket launchers as toys. They hang out with militants who raise them to believe in martyrdom and accept that the 'individual is indivisible from society as a whole-if you hurt one, you hurt all. It is not possible to have peace because they have killed so many of us,' says Ahmed.
Miller comes across as a film-maker who believes that he should remain anonymous but in May 2003 he became the story. The film builds towards the footage of what happened that night, the final interviews recorded and the bullet that took Miller's life as he walked through the dark, wearing a flak jacket imprinted with the letters TV and shining a torch on to a white flag.
He didn't live to make his film on the children of Israel and Death In Gaza was completed and shaped by his colleagues, including reporter Saira Shah. It is a fitting tribute to someone who gave his life for the belief that films like Death In Gaza can make a difference to the way we understand the wider world.
Prod co: Frostbite Films for HBO
Int'l sales: Charles Schreger, HBO, (1) 212 512 5673, firstname.lastname@example.org
Exec prod: Sheila Nevins
Prods: James Miller, Saira Shah
Co-prods: Daniel Edge, Belinda Morrison
Ed: Misha Manson-Smith
Music: Nick Powell