http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,949977,00.html The Guardian (U.K.) Tuesday May 6, 2003
My friend James
Cameraman James Miller, who was shot dead by Israeli soldiers last week, was a great war reporter. But he was not a gung-ho adrenaline junkie says Cassian Harrison who worked and drank beer with him
Late on Friday night, I received a phone call: Reuters was reporting that a man had been shot dead in Rafah, on the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. That the man was a cameraman and director called James Miller.
The sense of shock and fury with which I put the phone down has still not faded: James was a man with whom I spent some of the most extraordinary times of my life, a man of talent, intelligence and integrity. A man I was plotting to go down the pub with in a few weeks’ time.
Almost three years ago, I began to research a documentary project on Taliban Afghanistan. That project would become Beneath the Veil, an expose of the hidden life of the Taliban’s fundamentalist state with deeply personal reporting from Saira Shah.
But in those early days I had not yet chosen the reporter. All I knew was who I wanted to shoot the film - a cameraman called James Miller. James had a reputation as one of Britain’s finest camera operators in difficult and dangerous circumstances. He was a veteran of practically every war zone of the 90s: Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Bosnia, Chechnya.
But when I met him, I was confronted not with some grizzled war reporter with a bad case of adrenaline addiction, but a young man of whip-like focus, tempered by a fine line in irony and a broad grin that would crack across his face at the slightest provocation.
It was still a difficult meeting. It wasn’t that James didn’t want to go to Taliban Afghanistan. It was just that I had decided that to help the Taliban look more kindly on us, we should both grow beards. James informed me bluntly that he didn’t mind going into the world’s most fundamentalist state, but he didn’t want to look like a bloody tramp when he did so.
I somehow prevailed, at the price of regular emails on just how awful he was looking. We finally got our visas for Afghanistan, although I don’t know if the beards really helped. And it was only then that I began to understand James’ character, how far he was from the cliched persona of the war cameraman. This was a man who knew every risk, and thought deeply about all of them.
The filming of Beneath the Veil took us to one of the remotest spots on the planet, to what was, in those pre-9/11 days, a forgotten war raging between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in the far northeast of Afghanistan.
It took us four days to get there, travelling by UN plane, and then by pickup, driving along riverbeds through an astonishing landscape of rusting Russian tanks and minefields - although James’ principal concer throughout was how long he could spin out our one family-size bar of Dairy Milk.
We had travelled there because we had heard rumours that the Taliban had massacred civilians nearby. And when we arrived, dashing from spot to spot along a frontline overlooked by Taliban artillery positions, it became clear that something dreadful had indeed happened. The Taliban had entered a series of villages and slaughtered or taken prisoner any man they could find.
But we needed evidence. The Northern Alliance troops told us that they would take us into one of the villages where the most bloody of the massacres had taken place. But it would be very dangerous. The road was mined, and the village was under the sights of a Taliban anti-aircraft gun.
Should we do it? We all had doubts, but we also felt it was crucial to the film. As a producer in these circumstances, all you can do is put the question to a vote. And the one person who said no was James. He thought about it long and hard. He said to me afterwards that he was worried that I would think he was a coward, and that five years before, he would have done it like a shot. But he was a father now, and there was more to life than that one exclusive. On a careful assessment of the risks, he felt it simply wasn’t worth it.
And he was right. We didn’t need to go there. When we got back we found we already had got our story - with more power and emotion than any of us had realised at the time.
It’s not that James didn’t sometimes have a brash and dismissive persona. The things he had seen in his professional life would have forced anyone to develop some kind of protective shell. But alongside a hearty - and often hilarious - contempt for anyone in authority, there was a quiet understanding and sympathy for the ordinary people he met in some of the most remote and appalling places on earth.
At the end of our filming in Afghanistan we were offered one final round of Afghan hospitality. But this meal was different. At the end, our smiling host went to the chest in which the most precious family items were kept, and produced, to James’ and my astonishment, a single bottle of German beer. It was proudly placed on the table in front of us, a bottle opener beside it.
We looked at each other with widening eyes. This was probably the only bottle of beer in a 300-mile radius, and, boy, did we feel we needed one. I reached out my hand. And then James sadly shook his head at me. I dropped my hand, the bottle stayed unopened. We made our apologies and farewells, and outside James explained that, to our host, that one bottle was a talisman, a symbol of a wider world that he would probably never get to see. Our pleasure in drinking it would never match his in owning something so strange and exotic to his world.
In all the time I knew him, James had one simple and implacable desire: to be the best cameraman possible. Not to get to the most dangerous spot, or take the riskiest shot, but to creatively, as a cinematographer, match the scenes and situations he encountered. Throughout the filming of Beneath the Veil, we would continually up the stakes with each other, until we got to the point where we would only film when we felt the light was perfect, and the composition was impeccable - even in a war zone.
And so I find myself left with a terrible rage. A man who was one of the finest cameramen of his generation, who was forging a place as a director and producer in his right, now lies on a slab in an Israeli morgue. We may never know exactly what occurred on Friday night, although I add my voice to the demands for a full and transparent enquiry from the Israeli military.
And whatever happened, he should never have died like this.
/Cassian Harrison was the producer and director of Beneath the Veil./