Tribeca-Bound Director Details His Doc's 25-Year Journey to Screen, Before Virus Crisis Hit (Guest Column)

Miracle Fishing and inset of Miles Hargrove-H 2020
Courtesy of Subject; Courtesy of Mark Rutledge

Miles Hargrove's 'Miracle Fishing,' which chronicles his father's 1994 kidnapping by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and inspired the 2000 film 'Proof of Life,' will have to wait longer to make its world premiere.

“It’s like being taken, suddenly, and nailed in a box — or a coffin. You’re left there in silence and darkness while the rest of the world goes on. Eventually, you’ll be released from that box to face the world, and your world, and the changes that have come about.” Tom Hargrove’s diary, Day 36.

Twenty-five years ago, my dad was kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). While he was held hostage high in the Andes mountains, his captors realized that, in order to have any chance of getting a ransom paid, they would have to bypass law enforcement authorities and deal directly with our family. As my dad was left in silence and darkness, my mom, brother and I were living our own brutal reality. We couldn’t go out, we couldn’t lead normal lives and, in a sense, we too had become kidnapped. With no choice but to fight for his release ourselves, we turned to the few people we could trust most — our close friends and neighbors. We acquired a shortwave radio as instructed by his captors and began to negotiate a $6 million ransom for my father’s life from our living room in Cali.

I was 21 and struggling to cope. Determined that he would survive, my mom suggested that I document our efforts with the family camcorder to create a home video that dad could see when he came home. As the months marched forward, shooting the video morphed into something more for me: The camera became a therapeutic tool separating me from my reality and, as a result, the experience burned these events into my memory in a different way. I shot relentless negotiations, the retrieval of “proof of life” documents in fast-food restaurant bathrooms, and ransom payments. I filmed the endless agony of waiting for my dad to come home, but also recorded the beauty of trust, humor and solidarity in “Team Tom.” The camera captured everything, and the process not only turned me into a filmmaker but inspired a 25-year journey to turn the footage into a film that accurately portrays the experience of collective trauma. The result is Miracle Fishing.

In 2001, I got my first editing system and had the naive idea that I would finish the film within a year. Only by 2003 had I scraped together enough cash, time and knowledge to begin shooting my interviews with Team Tom, and that filming continued into 2005. By then, I realized I would need funding to complete the project, so I began to seek out producing partners. People were interested, but there were always stipulations — someone else had to direct it; someone else had to edit it. I thought they were missing the point because, even then, I knew that this was my story to tell.

During this time, my behind-the-scenes filmmaking career took off, catapulted by the launch of Proof of Life, the fictional kidnap and ransom film starring Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe that was “inspired by” my dad’s story. I went on to work on Miss Congeniality, Van Helsing, the Harry Potter movies, Fast and Furious, but I couldn’t shake the overwhelming need to finish the opus of my own life.

The stock market crash of 2008 wiped out the only decent deal that I had been offered, and when my mom was diagnosed with cancer a few months later, I put the project down. She died in 2009, and I couldn’t even look at the footage for almost a decade.

In that time, I started my own family and worked on as many projects as I could — VR concerts, music videos, presidential campaigns, corporate videos. Other people’s films. I was invited to return to my behind-the-scenes career, but the calling of my own documentary was too strong, so I turned them down. I frequently wondered if I made the right decision.

In 2017, I felt I was finally ready and devoted my time to editing the material and painstakingly reconstructing the narrative that defined our lives during my dad’s capture. I wanted to use minimal narration to help set the context. I rarely cut away from the original Video 8 source material that I filmed when I was 21. I wanted this construct to allow the viewer to become one of us, to enter our world, to live in our claustrophobic habitat, and go through every motion of our reality, from the most mundane to the most harrowing and adrenaline-fueled, never knowing whether my dad would return alive.

Making this film is the hardest thing I’ve ever set out to do because it required me to dig into the past so deeply and for so long. I spent years relentlessly analyzing and reliving the trauma of the worst year of my life. Psychologically, It doesn’t make much sense. But in the end, it made me a stronger person and, I hope, a better filmmaker. There were many times I wished I’d never had the desire to make the film in the first place. Friends had long stopped asking about the project, and I withdrew further and further in order to fulfill my innate need to tell the story. I’m forever grateful for my family’s patience — particularly my wife, Emily, who supported us financially, and me emotionally, throughout this process.

In December, I got the news I had waited 25 years to hear: The Tribeca Film Festival had selected the film and wanted to premiere it in April. It felt so right. It would give Team Tom, our most trusted accomplices, a chance to come back together and be reunited in New York for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was ready to share this story and use it as an opportunity to reconnect with the world. My producer, Eric Martin, and I had pulled an extraordinary team together. Hundreds of people donated to a GoFundMe for finishing funds to help make this dream a reality.

Then COVID-19 hit, and the world stopped. When SXSW was cancelled, we knew it was only a matter of time before Tribeca did the same: the right decision during an extremely difficult time. But like all the other filmmakers who were planning on using the festival as their launching pad, the future of Miracle Fishing was suddenly, and once again, uncertain. After a quarter century, this news was devastating.

On the day the film would have had its world premiere, Team Tom gathered together on Zoom. Ironically, each of us was living our own isolation in our homes around the world. It was an emotional, beautiful reunion, but one that left many questions unanswered. Would we ever have the chance to meet again, as a team, and watch the film together? Of course, as we are looking for distribution, we wondered if this story will find the home it is meant to find.

For now, I have to keep it all in perspective. The painful loss of a dear friend from COVID-19 reminds me that, while it is a product of my life’s work, Miracle Fishing is only a film and that there are more serious issues going on in the world right now.

Still, too much time, love, debt, sacrifice and tears have gone into Miracle Fishing for it to fall into obscurity. I know that this film is more relevant now than ever — a portrait of how normal people can cope in times of crisis. We showed this fortitude, as a team, sitting around the radio in Colombia; as did my Dad — who was alone, cold, chained and starving in those mountains. Finally, we emerged, scarred but certainly stronger and more resilient. It took time then and with circumstances out of our control, it is taking more time now. I waited before, so I know I can wait again.