May 2004 Scotland on Sunday
THE first lines are simple, factual and chilling. “James Miller is the director of this film. On the 2nd of May 2003, he became another grim headline of the Middle East.”
The voice is that of Saira Shah. The film is Death in Gaza. The death – or “grim headline” – is that of James Miller, Shah’s collaborator on the award-winning documentaries Beneath the Veil and Unholy War. This latest documentary was to be his last.
On that fateful day, he and Shah were in Rafah, shooting a documentary about Palestinian children living in the fag end of the Gaza Strip close to the Egyptian border, where fighting with Israeli troops is at its most relentless.
They had got all the footage they needed to make a bittersweet account of “the people who get sucked in”, innocent 11 and 12-year-olds on the cusp of succumbing to the cruel cult of martyrdom that infects the region. One minute they’re playing video games and singing the joys of friendship, the next they’re acting as lookouts for patrols of militia men.
On the last day of filming, Shah and Miller found themselves taking shelter from Israeli armoured bulldozers clearing ground to intercept Palestinian tunnels into Egypt. It was getting late and the film crew decided to head for safety.
Shah takes up the story: “We’d been filming all evening in the vicinity. The bulldozers weren’t right at the house, they were a little further away. We knew they had seen us and recognised us as a camera team because we had been on the lighted veranda all evening. Our one concern was to make ourselves as visible as we possibly could, because we wanted to ask them for permission to leave. Unfortunately, we succeeded too well in making ourselves visible: we had a white flag, James was shining a torch on it and wearing a helmet with “TV” on it. There was a single shot. We all froze – we assumed it was a warning shot. Then exactly 13 seconds later, there was a second shot which hit James in the neck, killing him instantly. That is a typical sniper shot. If someone can see to shoot someone in the neck, then why can’t they see a flag, a torch and a helmet?”
For Shah, the shock took a long time to hit home. “I went through eight or nine months of disassociation,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it had happened – I really didn’t think I was living in reality. I made up a whole story in my head that there was a parallel universe somewhere with my world in it and this was another world. I knew it wasn’t true, but it’s something you do to cope.”
It doesn’t seem to get easier. Earlier this week, Shah was in France nervously awaiting a phone call from Scotland on Sunday. “I was sitting there before the phone rang, just dreading it,” she says. “It’s hard. In some form or other, I’m going to have to give evidence publicly and going through that again is awful.”
Her anxiety is revealing. Since the age of 21, when she journeyed alone into a war-torn Afghanistan, the land of her ancestors, she has been taking the kind of risks many would consider unacceptable. Her documentary Beneath the Veil and her book The Storyteller’s Daughter – newly out in paperback and a compelling read – detail her illegal trek into Taliban-controlled Kabul under cover of a burqa. She ventured into more hotspots as a Channel 4 war reporter. Fearless she might be, but the naturally cheery 39-year-old has been severely traumatised by her colleague’s death. Even the thought of talking to a newspaper brings that trauma back.
Did it make her reconsider her job? “Yes,” she says. “I’m very unlikely to do television again. It’s not because I don’t want to go to rough areas, because I hope I will, and it’s not because I hate television, because I don’t, it’s because James and I had set up our own company because we wanted to work together as a team, and the thought of working with a different team is just too painful.
“It has made me think about dangers as well. I’m 39 and you have to think carefully. But I love places like Afghanistan and I’d hate not to go back. I want to take a break and recover and then I’d like to write novels and see what happens.”
Aside from the bereavement of losing her closest friend, she has been affected by two things: the sudden and unexpected nature of Miller’s death and the fact that the Israeli investigation into why it happened has dragged on for over a year. This has been exacerbated by having to pore over 75 hours of footage, much of which features a running commentary by Miller himself.
“It’s the worst tragedy that could have happened,” she says. “James was my closest friend. The last year has been a blur trying to get the film together and going through this process of grieving. Also frustration, trying to find out what happened. I still can’t sleep at night wondering what was going through the head of the guy who pulled that trigger. Because the investigation has stalled and stalled, we seem to be no closer to answers than we were a year ago. I can’t describe what it’s like not having those answers.”
Putting the film together has been a painstaking process. “We’d just joke and say this is no way to get through traumatic loss,” says Shah. “This is just re-traumatising. It went on for week after week. I thought I was going insane, and probably we all did go a little bit potty. James was the only person I know who talked while he was filming and his voice was all over the rushes. Logging the rushes was awful for us. Then in the edit, you’d play the film again and again, and there are bits that I just can’t watch.”
She says it feels important that Death in Gaza was made. “I’d like to think of the film as a gift for James and his family [he left a wife and two young children]. When it first happened, I thought that I couldn’t finish it, but his family said they needed the film to be made. I’m really proud of it and it does feel right: James won’t get a chance to make another film, so we wanted to make this as good as we could.”
Their purpose in making the documentary, which features music by Nick Powell, a founder member of Glasgow’s Suspect Culture theatre company, had been to go beyond the oppositional politics that dominates the usual discussion of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They wanted to show how war affects children and had planned to make a companion documentary about the lives of Israeli children.
In this, Death in Gaza will make a fascinating comparison with Zlata’s Diary, the Communicado stage production that opened in Aberdeen on Friday before a Scottish tour, recreating the worldview of a young teenager living through the war in Sarajevo. Now 23 and living in Dublin, the diary’s author, Zlata Filpovic, believes children share a common experience of life during wartime. “They’ve never voted, never had any say in what’s going on and yet their childhoods are robbed from them,” says Filipovic. “I find that incredibly sad and infuriating.”
Saira Shah agrees: “In the work James and I did together we thought of ourselves as going under the radar. We tried to break down ‘issues’ into the lowest common denominator and that’s human beings. We were much less interested in power politics than the effect on individuals. What you see in Death in Gaza is ordinary kids, who could have been any of our kids, in an extraordinary situation and what happens to a young human being in that kind of situation. We are on the side of the kids, looking at their environment and seeing what forces are preying on them.”
Despite Death in Gaza showing a sympathetic portrait of people’s behaviour in an extraordinary situation, Shah ends the film by saying that “the extremists gained another martyr”. Her use of the word “extremist” is deliberate. “You can’t help but sympathise with some things, like when you see people living in desperate, difficult situations over which they have no control,” she says. “The dangers for children and civilians in Rafah are very real. On the other hand, the longer you spend there, the more you realise that things are more complex. This conflict has been going on at least 50 years and in that time, in a strange way, the sides have grown together. I don’t think you can say one side is good, the other side is bad. When you see Palestinian militants quite cynically using children, it makes me angry.
“Again, I would break it down below a political level into a human level and I have huge sympathy for human beings suffering – and they really are suffering horribly. You see the mechanics of it: how that suffering then creates a reaction which creates suffering in its turn. If the film is trying to do something it is to look at the mechanics of that cycle.”
Death in Gaza is broadcast on Channel 4 on May 25. The Storyteller’s Daughter (Penguin £7.99) is published in paperback on May 27.
© Mark Fisher 2004/2009
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