James Miller: award-winning documentary film-maker and journalist

James once told me that if he’d lived during the Second World War, he’d have been one of those officers who led his men over the top, simply because it would have been unthinkable to admit he was afraid. He described seeing in the corridors of his public school, Downside, rows and rows of pictures of old boys who had lost their lives during the war. “They looked so young and so… utterly decent. I just wanted to be like that.”

He lived as he died – an old-fashioned English hero. On one awful night when we found ourselves marching across the Hindu Kush in wet pyjamas, both suffering from hypothermia, James lent me his socks. It was entirely in character.

His death – he was killed by Israeli soldiers while filming in the Gaza Strip on 2 May – was more shocking because, like most of those who knew him, I had always assumed that James was indestructible.

The day I met him, I wrote in my diary: “He looks terribly British Army, of the type who could gnaw off his own leg and march through the jungle, if required.” Later, when our Pushtun fixer confided that his hobby was shooting RPGs, James was unruffled: “At anything in particular?” he enquired. “Or just shooting?” In fact, although he came from a military family, he said that he never joined the army because he “had a problem with discipline”. This simply wasn’t true – he was one of the most disciplined people I have ever met –but he did have a delightfully anarchic side. After three days sitting in the office of a particularly repellent Taliban official, James picked up the man’s desk diary, flipped it forward six months, and wrote: “US airstrikes.” He was later very proud that he’d got the date right almost to the day.

A friend has told me he felt honoured to be the butt of so many acerbic one-liners and I feel the same way, even though he once demolished me in the single sentence: “You may look like a sixth former at Mallory Towers, but actually you’re a psychopath.” In one trouble spot, the press corps was behaving so badly that I wondered aloud why decent hotel keepers in conflict zones didn’t ban journalists. James fixed me with an implacable eye and said: “If you’re ever a hotel keeper in a place like this and more than six journalists book into your hotel at any one time, I suggest you take your family and head for the hills.”

Along with his sharp humour came extraordinary compassion. When I was writing a book about our experiences in Afghanistan, I called James in despair for advice. I was trying to describe a little girl we had met whose mother had been shot by the Taliban. I just couldn’t find a way to explain the intensity of her grief. James had been watching her through the viewfinder, and he said: “Pretend that you are looking at a single brown eye, and from that eye trickles just one tear. Then try to imagine from what vast well of sorrow that tear has managed to escape.” That’s why he was great – and I have no doubt whatsoever that had he lived he would have been among the greatest directors of his generation. He transcended picture; he instinctively understood, cared about, and knew how to portray the inner workings of the human heart.

I always felt safe with him because he had been everywhere – he once told me that he had covered over 20 wars – from Chechnya to Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Congo. And he would have been furious with me if I omitted to mention that he was showered with just about every award it is possible to win, including two Emmys, a Royal Television Society award for Craft Photographer of the Year, a Bafta and a Peabody – the television equivalent to a Pulitzer.

To travel anywhere with James was to acquire an intimate knowledge of his wife Sophy, and his children – two-year-old Alexander and five-month-old Lottie. He talked about them all the time; they were never far from his thoughts, and for their sakes he would never, ever take unnecessary risks.

Perhaps because he was such a good father to his own kids, children everywhere responded to him. He even tamed the howling gangs of street urchins in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, where he was killed. Children would cluster round him reverently, hoping to be allowed to take a look through his viewfinder.

It is so fitting that now, in Rafah, he has become the children’s martyr. The local kids who loved him have built a shrine on the spot where he fell, and the day after he died, the children’s parliament held a march in his memory.

On the day James was killed, we interviewed a boy called Mohammad, the best friend of an 11-year-old called Ahmad, a character in our film. The two boys would often throw stones at Israeli tanks – a life-threatening pursuit in Rafah. But when I asked Mohammad what was his greatest fear, he simply said: “I’m afraid that Ahmad will be martyred – and that I will be left behind.” Now I know what he meant.

Saira Shah

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