the death of her friend, the cameraman James Miller, award-winning
documentary-maker Saira Shah tells Julie Tomlin why she’s leaving TV
journalism for good
AFTER MAKING Beneath the
Veil, an undercover documentary about the oppression suffered by women
in Afghanistan, Saira Shah’s future as a TV journalist seemed
Shah had travelled to her father’s homeland near Kabul, disguising
herself beneath a burqa to document the suffering of Afghan women under
the Taliban, the religious movement that took power over much of the
country in 1996.
Shah and her crew, including cameraman James
Miller, had to work undercover because of restrictions on their visa,
which only allowed them to film inanimate objects.
documentary, which also showed secretly filmed footage they acquired of
public executions held in a football stadium, proved to be extremely
The film was broadcast by Channel 4 and by CNN in the
summer of 2001. When, months later, there were terrorists attacks in
the US, the film provided insight into the oppressiveness of the
Taliban regime when the appetite for information about Afghanistan was
at its height.
There was little surprise that the following year
the film won the Royal Television Society’s current affairs award and
went on to pick up other honours, including a Bafta and the Freedom of
Press award from the National Press Club.
The pair also made a
second film, Unholy War, which Miller also directed, revealing how the
bombing of Afghanistan by the US was affecting civilians.
travelled at night over the 17,000ft-high Hindu Kush mountains to reach
Afghanistan and went into the villages to find out what was happening
to the ordinary people caught up in the war.
Shah and Miller subsequently went on to set up their own company, Frostbite Productions.
less than four years after the critical success of Beneath the Veil,
Shah has made the decision, which she shows no sign of wanting to
reverse, that she is going to pull out of TV journalism for good.
decision comes in the aftermath of the death of Miller, who was shot
while working on a project they both considered the “big one” – a film
that examined the lives of three Palestinian children and the impact of
the violence between the Israeli army and the Palestinian fighters on
Death in Gaza focuses on children in the border town of
Rafah, in the Gaza strip, giving insight into the vicious circle of
violence that perpetuates the conflict. The film shows how children
face violence from the Israeli army, particularly snipers, and are also
vulnerable to the influence of Palestinian paramilitaries who exploit
every incident of violence to recruit Palestinian children and groom
them for martyrdom.
Miller was shot on 2 May 2003 by Israeli
soldiers on the last evening of filming as he left the home of one of
the children with Shah and their fixer Aboud.
cameraman, who was married with children, was shining a torch onto a
white flag – seeking permission to leave the area without being shot at
– as they approached an Israeli armoured personnel carrier. Miller, who
like the rest of the crew was wearing a helmet and flak jacket with a
TV motif on it, was shot in the neck and died soon after.
Miller’s killer has still not been brought to justice and Shah says she has decided not to work in TV again.
The reason is in part that she finds it impossible to consider working as part of a new set-up.
was my friend and we had the dream team and there won’t be the dream
team like that again,” she says. “The thought of going back and
doing TV journalism made me feel terrible. People asked me if I was
going to make any more films and I would feel sick at the prospect. I
realised I felt better if I allowed myself to say ‘no’.
“It’s the only way I can deal with it, to say to myself that I won’t work in TV again.”
the success of Beneath the Veil, Shah and Miller made the decision to
set up Frostbite Productions, believing that working for other people
as they had done “was a bit of a mug’s game and because we thought we
were not going to get a better team”.
Miller had worked in many
hot spots, including Chechnya, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, and
the decision to set up his own business reflected his desire to work in
less dangerous areas in the future.
“James had decided he wanted
to gradually get out of the frontline stuff. He wanted to be doing
stuff that was meaningful but not necessarily bang bang,” says
Shah. “He wanted to be able to spend more time with his family and do
other things, so this was kind of perfect.”
Because of her
decision, Frostbite is now “in abeyance”, says Shah. “It’s been put in
cotton wool until James’s family decide what they want to do with it.
But I’m stepping out of it,” she adds.
Shah readily admits she is still grieving the loss of her friend,
who she describes as “the greatest of his generation” and says the fact
the film won a Bafta in April would have meant “a massive amount to
She continues: “He’d won a Bafta as part of the production team for
Beneath the Veil and he’d directed a few things, but this was the big
one. He knew this was his big breakthrough film.”
Shah and Miller
had gone to Gaza as part of a broader project about the impact of
violence on children, but when they got there decided that the material
they had was so powerful that they would just focus on Rafah and the
lives of 12-year-old Ahmed, his friend Mohammed and 16-year-old Najla.
film captures Ahmed talking about how, after witnessing the death of a
friend who was shot in the head by an Israeli sniper, he fell in with
paramilitaries and went on to work for them as a messenger and lookout.
It also shows Mohammed, his best friend, explaining why out of loyalty
he ignored his mother’s pleas and joined Ahmed in making primitive
bombs to throw at the Israeli tanks.
The day that Miller was
killed had begun with them hearing that the Israelis were about to raze
the home of Najla, one of the girls they had been filming.
lived on the border where the Israeli armyis demolishing Palestinian
homes to create a security zone and Shah and Miller decided they would
visit Najla to establish what was happening for themselves.
spent the evening with the teenager’s family, watching the armoured
vehicle as it moved back and forth close to the family home.
its lights were finally switched off, Shah and Miller waited for a
while before concluding that there was unlikely to be any more activity
that evening. They decided they would attempt to return to their base.
a recent event organised for the World Press Freedom Day, which
concentrated on the issue of impunity for killers of journalists, Shah
described in detail the events leading up to the moment when Miller was
shot. Her memory of events is reinforced, she says, by having
frequently watched footage shot by an APTN stringer who by chance was
filming their movements.
Shah stressed that she and Miller and Aboud had been very aware of
the potential dangers of leaving the house, but on balance decided that
they should attempt to return to their accommodation.
After discussing the matter with Najla’s family, they agreed to
carry a white flag that the adults used when they wanted to approach
Israeli forces and speak with them.
Having said their goodbyes,
Miller went out carrying the white flag and torch while Shah called out
to the guards that they were members of the press.
When the first
shot was fired the team froze, assuming that it was a warning shot.
“That’s the common practice at such times, they fire a warning shot and
you freeze,” said Shah when she spoke at the Frontline Club in London
to commemorate World Press Freedom Day.
Thirteen seconds later, a
second shot rang out. A little later Shah, who remembers screaming,
realised that Miller had been shot at the front of the neck.
area was one of only a few that he would have been vulnerable in, given
that he was wearing body armour. Shah later learnt that snipers who
want to show off to their fellow soldiers aim for that part of the body.
77-minute film, Death in Gaza, concludes with the APTN footage showing
the death of Miller – anaddition that made the project difficult for
Shah, who says it seemed that virtually all of the first year after his
death was spent in the editing suite.
“It was quite a prolonged and very, very painful process as obviously we ended up weaving James’s story into it,” says Shah.
“We wanted it to be James’s film, so we wanted to use the material he’d shot.
the only extra material is the footage of James’s death and we used a
few stills of James and a little bit of his home video.”
It was, she says, “a pretty awful process”.
Shah says a lot of her energy since has been thrown into the Miller family’s campaign to bring the Israeli soldier to justice.
family recently launched a civil action against the Israeli government
after learning that the officer believed to have shot him was to go
The family claims that the army did not act with
reasonable caution when they shot Miller and is seeking damages from
the Israeli government. In April, the officer believed to have shot
Miller was acquitted of the charge that he misused his weapon.
advocate general, who had made a strong recommendation that the officer
be discharged by a disciplinary court, has announced he will appeal the
The family has also applied for a judicial review in an attempt to take the matter out of the army’s hands.
so little cooperation from the Israeli authorities, Shah says she has
been disappointed by the media’s coverage of the story since the night
that Miller was shot.
“There hasn’t been a large amount of
interest and I think that’s appalling,” says Shah. “When James was
first killed, the one thing I assumed was that there would be a lot of
publicity. He was an incredibly wellknown guy, both inside the industry
and outside, and I absolutely took it as read that there would be huge
articles about it and people would be jumping up and down.” Shah
contrasts the coverage of Miller’s death with that of Rachel Corrie, a
young American peace activist who was crushed to death by an Israeli
bulldozer, and the shooting of British photographer and peace activist
Tom Hurndall, who was shot in the head by an Israeli soldier. Both
attracted more media attention than Miller, she claims.
“There was a lot more for Tom Hurndall,” she says. “I think that
within the journalistic profession there’s a lot of fear of talking
about journalists. They’re so used to not talking about themselves they
don’t like turning themselves into a story. So almost unconsciously
news editors are looking for a fresh young kid rather than someone like
James who was very professional and who knew what he was doing and why
he was there.
“But because there’s a great reluctance to talk about what
journalists are doing, the uncommitted reader would have missed it [the
coverage],” says Shah. “Someone who was passionate about it would have
got the paragraph on page seven, but a general reader wouldn’t.”
fact that the soldier believed to have killed Miller has so far gone
unpunished and the reluctance of the Israeli government to bring him to
justice is another reason behind Shah’s decision not to go back into
TV. Her faith in her ability to affect change by her work has been too
“What got me through doing the things I did was the
belief that they would make a difference,” she says. “Somehow, doing
this campaigning for James, it feels like banging your head against a
You think people can’t even make a difference with something like that. Did any of our stories make a difference?
“With my mind, rationally, I think some of them did, but you have got to get that back emotionally.
is an element of trying to understand what one does this for
post-James. He and I went to parts of the world that some people felt
were unacceptably risky, but we felt that went with the territory and
were really careful when we went there. We did feel what we did was
important enough. But since James died it’s been very hard to avoid
“You think, you know this guy could be
killed who was absolutely the best in terms of being a human being and
also in terms of the job he did and it’s paragraph three on the home
news page, and then he disappears and there’s no investigation and that
life is wasted, is lost and it’s quite hard to revive that sense of why
you do things.
“It was something James felt very passionate
about. Although he had children and a wife he loved very much he
also thought the people he met, particularly the children as he was
potty about kids, were also important and if he didn’t tell the world
about them, then who would?”
Shah is currently concentrating on
new ventures, such as travelling to Afghanistan recently to train radio
journalists as a volunteer for a charitable organisation called
“I think doing some things like training young journalists can help.
found that a refreshment to the soul in a way,” says Shah, adding
that she has also “really been doing quite a lot of soul-searching”
since completing the film.
“It’s a bit of a struggle to get that
back and training other journalists has helped because they’re young,
they’re keen,” says Shah. “I know there are journalists who have faced
death and have said they will carry on doing journalism. I think that
is phenomenally brave.
“But it’s not the safety issue – I still go and would go to the places I went to with James.
“I probably sound ridiculously gloomy,” Shah continues.
“I think if I thought I would never do any journalism again I would be very depressed. I will, though maybe not television.”
who was born in London and brought up in Kent, has written a book, The
Storyteller’s Daughter, based on a trip she made to Afghanistan with “a
template of stories” that she then tried to fit into reality. “It’s a
book about Afghanistan but also about trying to find the truth,” she
Shah was proofing the book when Miller was killed – it was
first published in August 2003 – although she says it surprises her
that it was two years ago that Miller was killed. “It must be just some
bizarre thing about the grieving process. I keep thinking things were a
year ago when they were two years ago.
“I’ve just had a year nicked.”
As to the future, Shah says she has become more interested in writing these days.
“I am interested in the possibilities of truth-telling that writing, and ironically even fiction, can provide.
they can give you scope to tell things that as a reporter you can’t
tell because you’re so trammelled by trying to be fair to everyone and
reporting the facts as they actually happen.
“When you read
fiction by someone like Conrad, you realise that he has actually evoked
a situation that as a straight journalist you couldn’t necessarily get
to,” she says.
“I think of it as looking at another bit of a prism. If truth is a crystal, then you can look at it another way.”
But she says she will also be “constantly on tap” to help the family in their fight to bring Miller’s killers to justice.
“I think we will just go on and on,” says Shah. “What else can we do?
“It’s almost like I’ve had a bullet in my chest. I know I haven’t of course, but it’s taking a long time.”