The world premiere of James Miller’s Death in Gaza on Thursday portrays violence in the Middle East through the eyes of children.
But the 34-year-old film-maker died in a hail of bullets fired by Israeli soldiers on 2 May 2003 just as he was bringing his programme to an end.
Miller’s colleague Saira Shah presented the incomplete 77-minute film, voicing her regret at her friend’s absence and her embarrassment at presenting the film herself.
“James and I set out to make a film on the culture of violence in Gaza. The aim was, below politics, to look on human beings, on the people who get sucked in the spiral of violence.”
The film begins with 12-year-old Ahmad, a football fan but also a boy who dreams of becoming a martyr in the Intifada, the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation.
His best friend Muhammad has similar ambitions despite his mother pleading with him to avoid trouble.
The documentary also looks at Najla’s life – a 16-year-old high school student who lives near a sector destroyed by Israeli bulldozers so that a security zone can be erected.
Ahmad and Muhammad have never seen a real Israeli in Gaza apart from on television screens or in military uniform.
“James and I set out to make a film on the culture of violence in Gaza. The aim was, below politics, to look on human beings, on the people who get sucked in the spiral of violence”
When they throw rocks at tanks they’re playing Jews and Arabs – just as children used to play Cowboys and Indians – but where the winners die and become martyrs.
Ahmad spends time with the Palestinian paramilitaries, keeping watch for them at night because “children aren’t suspicious” says one hooded figure in the documentary.
The boy proudly poses for a photograph alongside his masked “big brothers”, a rocket launcher propped up on his small shoulder. He also demonstrates how to put together home-made grenades.
When a fighter asks him if he’s not too young to die as a martyr, Ahmad’s reply is quick and firm: “We are men and this is war.”
The film lifts the veil on propaganda and Palestinian indoctrination but also shows human suffering in the face of an aggressive military and the many children dying from Israeli bullets.
Miller’s emotions behind the camera are never really hidden, yet it was not his first conflict zone. He honed his skills in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia, Lebanon, Sierra Leone and Iraq.
“If you don’t look, you don’t bear witness,” Sophie Miller, the director’s widow, told reporters at the Berlinale.
The film ends with Miller’s death, which came as he and his team approached an Israeli tank with Shah saying: “We are British journalists.”
“We have overwhelming evidence that he was illegally killed,” said his widow, who wants those responsible for his death to stand trial. There has been a police inquiry, but the family has not had access to its findings.