“Miracle fishing,” a talk with Miles Hargrove, filmmaker

Last Updated: June 13, 2020By Tags: , ,

Miles Hargrove’s filmmaking career got off to the most unlikely of starts, and under rather heavy duress.  In 1994, Hargrove and his American family were living in Cali, Colombia—in the backyard of the FARC guerrilla group.  Hargrove’s father, Tom, wrote about environmental and other issues affecting the country then under civil war, and it wasn’t long before his reporting and activism began to draw the wrong kind of notice.

One day, Tom didn’t come home.  Soon arrived a ransom note from the FARC, seeking $6 million for Tom’s safe return.  The Hargrove family, in consultation with FBI agents, friendly neighbors and Colombian go-betweens, would spend the next several months negotiating for the patriarch’s return.

Miles, then only a teenager, picked up his camcorder to record his mother, Susan, and brother Geddy, anxiously waiting for news of Tom, as neighbors, friends and even total strangers came to their aid.  He intended initially to turn over a “video diary” to his father after his hoped-for return, but instead turned those old tapes into a time capsule of those uncertain times in a new documentary called “Miracle Fishing,” which will be premiering at AFI Docs on June 19th. 

“I realized how remarkable the footage was early on in the process.  The seed had been planted [that] I was going to turn it into a documentary one day,” Hargrove said via telephone.  “Of course, I had no idea how it was going to end at that point.”

A quarter-century later, “Miracle Fishing” is a time capsule not only of his family’s surreal ordeal, but also of a different Colombia from the post-civil war country it has since become (even if that peace remains tenuous).  Even into the 21st century, narco-traffickers and leftist guerrillas vied for control against one another as well as fought the government, whose officials were all too easily bought off.  Kidnappings and “disappearances” were de rigeure for the lengthy conflict. 

“I loved Colombia from the get go, and throughout our whole ordeal,” Hargrove said, “but I never blamed the country” for what happened to his father.   

Tom Hargrove was certainly no stranger to difficult conditions in war-torn lands.  As a young man he had served in Vietnam, which his son said left behind some scars, but not so much that Tom didn’t continue to see his mission as helping out the less fortunate. 

“He had suffered from a bit of PTSD from [the war] and realized in coming to terms with that, he needed to talk about” his experiences, Miles Hargrove said now.  “And so [because] the kidnapping happened…he had this need to” again unburden.

But if Tom is largely absent from the old footage of “Miracle Fishing,” Miles, Sarah and Geddy take center stage, trying not only to work with their intermediaries to negotiate the ransom, but also continuing on with absurdly normal activities like family meals.

Hargrove eschewed contemporary talking-head interviews, so when his family members, colleagues and various government agents speak in “Miracle Fishing,” they are heard in voiceover only and their contemporary faces never seen.  This was a purposeful choice on the filmmaker’s part so he could provide an “immersive” experience for the viewer.

“I always knew that I had to use [contemporary interviews] for context because my footage just didn’t tell the complete story,” Hargrove said, adding that he interviewed not only his family in Texas, but also made several trips overseas. 

“First and foremost it serves the story, because my whole idea was for you to become ‘one of us,’” Hargrove said of inviting the viewer to be there with the family in the early-’90s.  “Secondly, I think it gives it more of a timelessness [since] it’s archival footage.”

Tom Hargrove did return to his family after months of negotiations, but the family’s time in South America ended not long thereafter, and they returned to their native Texas.  However, filmmaker Taylor Hackford got wind of their ordeal and optioned the rights to their story as “inspiration” for his film 2000 “Proof of Life,” which starred Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan. 

A still-young Miles Hargrove, interested in film himself, was hired to work on “Proof of Life,” commencing a career in behind-the-scenes work that he has continued. 

While the family did get some money for the story rights, it certainly wasn’t enough to never work again.  And the family was also divided over Hackford’s fictionalized drama. 

“I think my mom was always a little cynical about Hollywood,” Hargrove says now of Susan’s take on “Proof of Life.”  “My mom actually didn’t go to the premiere—not as a form of protest, she just didn’t want to buy into [the scene].  Particularly in those years after the kidnapping.”

As part of his research for “Miracle Fishing,” Hargrove even went back to Cali in Colombia.  He’s hopeful the film will play in that country, which is much different from when Tom was taken by the FARC—whose former members are now part of the national parliament.

“It was amazing to go back,” Hargrove said.  “At the time when we left, it didn’t show any signs of getting better, but I still felt very connected.  I’m really interested in what a Colombian audience would think about it.”

For that matter, Hargrove is anxious to hear what anyone beyond his immediate circle thinks of his documentary.  Coronavirus has shuttered theaters worldwide, forcing festivals such as this month’s AFI Docs to go entirely online.

“I’ve never seen the film with more than one person,” Hargrove said, an extraordinary thing for any filmmaker to admit.  “That would be amazing to see how it’s hitting a larger audience.”

Two people who unfortunately will never see “Miracle Fishing” are Hargrove’s parents, Tom and Susan, who both passed away before he was finished with the project.  However, he considers his documentary not only a love letter for their memories, but also a good old-fashioned suspense story that happens to be completely real. 

“It’s more a thriller and love story of the people who came together to help us,” the filmmaker said.  “I’m glad the family aspect is what’s resonating.”

“Miracle Fishing” will premiere at this year’s online AFI Docs on June 19 and will also play June 23 as part of the Nantucket Film Festival.

Still from “Miracle Fishing”

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