Hidden Gems: Death in Gaza
By Walid Habboub
November 30, 2004
Death in Gaza is an unintentionally important film that was intended to be a documentary of children caught on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict but ultimately ended up as a brutal true-life story of tragedy. The real story in the film is never where the filmmakers intend it to be, so due to the circumstances around the film, the narrative feels forced and unfocused. Despite all of that - or because of it depending on how you look at it - the circumstances around the film and the setting of the documentary make it an important film despite its many flaws.
James Miller was an Emmy and Peabody award winning Documentary filmmaker who specialized in gritty looks at war-torn regions. His documentaries included pieces on Chechnya, Kosovo and two compelling documentaries about Afghanistan pre-9/11. Along with reporter Saira Shah and producer Cassian Harrison, Miller began work on a documentary focusing on Palestinian and Israeli children in early 2003. Miller’s intent was to show how children on both sides of the conflict were just victims of a tragic situation. Sadly, Miller died on May 3rd, 2003 when soldiers in the Israeli army shot him to death while filming in the Palestinian town of Rafa.
Death in Gaza does not leave the death of Miller as a big secret, a set up for a dramatic reveal at the end. Miller’s death in presented at the beginning of the movie before it moves ahead and presents what Miller had filmed up until his death. Miller had focused his attention on the story of two young Palestinian boys and a slightly older Palestinian girl, all growing up in a much too fear-filled and violent world. The two boys are best friends but live in constant fear that fuels hatred for Israelis, an enemy they refer to as Pigs. The girl is barely a teenager and dreams of becoming a lawyer so that she can bring justice to her people. The children grow up in a world where martyrs are the only heroes and where death is so tragic and immediate that the only way to deal with it is to paint it as a positive step in life.
The strength of Death in Gaza is in how deep Miller and his team went. They give the viewer access to a part of this world that we would never dream to see or even understand. This gives the film some truly riveting scenes such as seeing one of the boys in a room of hooded Palestinian militants and seeing them take the child in as one of their own. Another part of the film involves the shooting of a 14-year-old boy who dies from a bullet wound in the back, a truly tear-jerking scene that’s as tragic as anything ever put on film. Less subtle is the young girl who breaks down in tears when reminded that death is all around her in every form. Unfortunately, the filmmaker never had time to finish his project and the attempt to integrate his death into the main story betrays his original intent.
There is a lot of time dedicated to Miller’s death; while a truly tragic and newsworthy incident, it awkwardly bookends the central theme of children being caught in a war-torn situation. The footage of Miller’s death at the end of the film is very difficult to watch, yet it takes away from the power of everything that preceded it. The intense nature of the footage emotionally betrays the balance with which the film presents the Israeli/Palestinian conflict’s effect on Palestinian children. What Miller’s death does present is a strong wake up call to anyone whose eyes had been closed to how Palestinians live and see the world.
James Miller’s tragic death is not the reason Death in Gaza is effective. The film tries to present a balanced look at a tragic conflict only to fail due to a completely different tragedy. Yet the importance of the film lies in the subject matter itself and the fact that it is presented at all. Seeing the conditions in that region in such a stark and honest presentation is why Death in Gaza is a must-watch.