James Miller's Documentary: Death in Gaza
James Miller’s Documentary: Death in Gaza
By Sonia Nettnin
James Miller’s ''Death in Gaza,'' was shown at the second annual Chicago International Documentary Film Festival. It examines the lives of Palestinian youth who live in Nablus, West Bank and Rafah, Gaza of the occupied Palestinian Territories.
“(The film) is not about war,” states Saira Shah, interviewer, narrator and producer for the film. “It’s about the people who get sucked in like James and the children caught up in war.”
As the camera crew drives through Nablus, a bomb detonates inside a car. A dead, Palestinian man - with his abdomen in the open air - is found on the ground. People collect his flesh in plastic bags for burial.
In the background, a media voice clip reports it was a targeted assassination of a Palestinian militant by Israeli agents.
The narrator asks the question: “Can children make peace or war?”
At an Israeli roadblock, Shah asks a soldier questions. He tells her to go back from the site. Shah reports 80 per cent of suicide bombers are from Nablus and the Israeli Army comes to hunt them. As tanks move through the streets, teenage boys throw rocks at them.
The crew heads south to Rafah. It has run-down, overcrowded tenements and rubble from destroyed homes. The compacted buildings leave little room for play. Trees are sparse. Kids climb concrete blocks - sometimes they play on flat rooftops. Miller shows several scenes of Rafah at daybreak. It is a grim and desolate place.
Feelings of hopelessness are exposed in interviews with the youth, along with an interview of a Palestinian mother. Abdul, who is eleven-years-old, pulls a letter out of his bottom drawer. In case they are killed, many children write letters to their families. Najla, 16, expresses herself with brutal honesty.
“Life is all despair,” she says. “I feel at any moment going to school I could be killed…” she confesses. She cuddles her sister. Together, they list the names of killed family members…their voices drift after the fourth name.
“I wish I could just die,” another youth says.
Martyrdom is seen as a means to life in the next world, where all sins are forgiven. It is perceived as better than mortal life in Rafah. The film shows child victims on poster boards, celebrated as martyrs. “They use death as propaganda,” Shah says.
The interviews with the youth are interspersed with scenes of Israeli tanks and bulldozers. Shah reports they are manned by Bedouin Arabs, who are Israeli citizens. Bulldozers raze homes from the ground. In the background, a media voice clip reports there are tunnels underneath the homes for smuggling weapons from Egypt. As teenage boys throw rocks at the bulldozers, the tanks shoot at them. Miller exposes the perpetuation embedded in this violence.
After a thirteen year old boy Salem is shot; Miller films him in the emergency room. The camera’s slow-motion footage conveys the pain felt by everyone – including Miller. The psychological effects of people who experience violence are presented poignantly.
The scene with the militants in their hideout shocked the audience into silence. While Shah interviews them, they answer her through black, sweater masks. “We were deprived of a childhood,” one man says. “We’ve all lost little brothers.” They hold rifles and show a boy, who is twelve-years-old, how to hold a rocket launcher. Later in the film, two boys make a Kalashnikov bomb. Miller films the militants with night vision effects also.
In the hideout room was violence and terrorism. Also in the room was an abyss of pain and rage. Is the message of Miller’s message that violence begets violence and hurts people? The manipulation of the boy into a child solider and the disregard for his life is despicable and disheartening…so is the destruction of peoples’ homes. Miller exposes the depths of some of the violence.
Shah narrates that the film is not about the conflict. Yet their cinematic exploration of some of the violence leads to the conflict. This documentary is a cinematic journey into the conflict’s violence, for a brief length of time (77 minutes). It shows the effects of violence on people. Miller was shot and killed while filming. As they stated in the film, he was trying to make a difference. His filmography as director includes: “Death in Gaza” (2003); “The Betrayed” (2002); “Unholy War” (2001); and “Beneath the Veil” (2000). He won an Emmy in 2002. “Death in Gaza” debuted at the Berlin Film Festival. Miller’s intention was to film Israeli children.
An investigation of violence in a cinematic framework through journalism is complicated and difficult. The program states: “the film also raises probing questions in journalism ethics, relating to the propriety of Miller and Shah’s presence.” The film could have used interviews of soldiers from the Israeli Defense Forces, but that may not have been possible. The tanks and armed personnel carriers symbolize the violence of military occupation, but the film does not address it at great length. Overall, the film’s scope was about violence, which is uncontrollable in on-the-ground coverage.
Miller and Shah engaged with the subject matter. Nick Powell’s music selections and sound effects enhanced the peoples’ emotional feelings as they experience loss, pain, suffering, and trauma. The different camera speeds rendered the artistic form of the film.
If people are interested in films about the challenges faced by Palestinian youth or ground coverage of violence in this conflict, they should see this movie. After people watch it, the question “can children make peace or war?” may evoke answers in some people. Miller’s documentary results in more questions and much-needed, diplomatic discussion for action.