The first time I became acquainted with the work of documentarian James Miller and reporter Saira Shah was when I first saw the documentary Beneath the Veil some years back, shortly after the September 11th attacks. It was an unnerving and powerful look at life in the Taliban-led area of Afghanistan, where women were brutalized and humiliated beyond comprehension.
Miller had done some work in other countries with similar dangerous environments, and in 2003 with Shah’s help, he unde…took a project to film the children of the world, and how they manage to wind up rabidly hating another group of people. With the Middle East being the way it was, the two managed to start off in Gaza, with the goal of shooting a subsequent film in Israel, to see how the children manage to wind up becoming such kool-aid drinking martyrs.
The main focus of Death in Gaza is on three children, 16 year old Najna, and 11-year old friends Ahmed and Mohammed. The children are shown in schools and are essentially being fed propaganda by the teachers as to how the occupying Israelis act and speak to them, and Ahmed is raised by a group of Palestinian militants, who show him how to make grenades and help them look out for any Israeli troops. Some of the things that Ahmed says are frightening since he says and does everything with martyrdom in mind, and Mohammed’s friendship seems to be largely based on that, as he says many times he would like to die after Ahmed and they can both become martyrs.
In no way is this a real cheery documentary, as the opening scenes in the film show a militant Palestinian get killed at the hands of the Israelis, while children try to collect as much of the militant’s flesh as possible, in order to get as full a burial as possible. Anyone who dies in Gaza, regardless of their intentions, is quickly labeled a martyr for Allah. The saddest postscript of all is that Miller joined these ranks in May of 2003, as he was killed by what was likely an Israel APC gun as they were attempting to peacefully approach in the dead of night.
The thing that frustrates me about Death in Gaza is that with Miller’s death, there’s the likelihood that the Israeli point of view on things may not get a chance to be properly explored. That message, that the violence on both sides permeates every pore in a lot of people’s lives, is the saddest thing to take away from it.
While the audio is just purely 2 channel goodness, it actually sounds fairly robust and clear. There’s some music that underlies the main film, and it sounds good, and the recorded sound is solid to boot.
Full frame viewing for the common man. I think all of the film occurs with handheld or tripod camcorders and various night vision settings. It’s reproduced very well and without any real concern.
There’s a making of look at the film that runs about 10 minutes and features interviews with Miller’s widow, and some of the members of his crew, and it’s quick and easy. There are larger looks at Miller and his work with separate remembrances. The filmmaker has 8 minutes given to his life and work and looks a lot like the making of piece, and the tribute compilation features about 4-6 minutes on each of Miller’s films. Miller appeared to have almost no fear when it came to tackling social issues throughout various parts of the world from San Salvador to Russia to Greece, and he appears to have been the cinematic equivalent of Sebastian Junger, a life that was truly memorable and valued.
Death in Gaza is an extremely effective piece of thought-provoking cinema. It may not have all the answers, and may raise a lot of repetitive questions, but it illustrates some areas that some many not have realized are accepted before, and that’s powerful storytelling, no matter how you slice it. Definitely check it out if it airs anytime soon on HBO, and you might want to give it a rental observation.
Special Features List
- James Miller Tribute
- James Miller Compilation
- Making of Featurette