East Dallas neighbor Miles Hargrove never set out to create a documentary when his father was kidnapped by guerilla fighters in Colombia. Several months into hostage negotiations, he realized the circumstances were too remarkable not to document. He knew his dad would want to see it someday.
So Miles picked up a camera and recorded events on cassette tapes over the next year as his family paid ransoms and worked with federal agents to secure the release of his father.
Filming became a coping mechanism. Now, Miles has turned the footage into the documentary “Miracle Fishing” to probe the family’s traumatic experience more than 25 years later.
“Miracle Fishing” was supposed to debut in April at the Tribeca Film Festival, but the event was canceled because of the coronavirus. Since then, it has premiered virtually at a number of film festivals, including AFI Docs, Sidewalk Film Festival and Monmouth Film Festival, where it won best featured documentary.
“It’s weird to relive the worst year of your life over and over,” Miles says. “It’s emotionally draining. There were so many times in the years leading to the final push when I doubted whether I could complete it. It’s been great to step back and go, ‘Wow, a year or two ago, you weren’t in this place.’ I have to be proud of that accomplishment.”
Miles’ father, agricultural journalist Tom Hargrove, was captured Sept. 23, 1994, by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Guerillas had set up a makeshift roadblock in the Colombian countryside in the hopes of catching someone valuable. The practice is known as “pesca milagrosa,” or miracle fishing, which inspired the name of the film.
In a ransom letter, guerillas demanded $6 million or else Tom would be executed.
Miles, a sophomore at Texas Christian University at the time, flew to Colombia, where his parents had lived for three years. His home videos show how family friends and colleagues kept the faith to rescue Tom. The community helped raise two ransom payments: one of $181,000 and one of $203,000. Shortly after the second payment, Tom was released after 11 months.
The group has pledged not to watch the film until they can do so together.
“Had I been thinking like I do now, it would have been shot so differently,” Miles says. “It’s shot with amateur footage. I hope that makes it compelling to people because nothing is contrived or set up. I was embarrassed by how amateur it all was, but revisiting it years later, the graininess of the footage is like a look. It’s like a time capsule of faded jeans and massive cell phones.”
Miles had hoped to make the documentary sooner, but it took time to find investors to finance the project. Then in three subsequent years, the stock market crashed, leading to the Great Recession, and both of his parents died. He couldn’t bear to look at the footage, so he put it away for years before picking it up again in 2017.
In the decade before resuming “Miracle Fishing,” Miles focused on gaining experience in the film industry. After graduating with a degree in radio, TV and film, the Abilene native moved to Dallas and worked on the set of “Walker, Texas Ranger.” He paid his dues as a prop assistant and utility sound technician until getting his big break. In 2000, he helped produce “The Making of Proof of Life,” an inside look into the movie inspired by his father’s capture. The movie starred Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe.
That led to more behind-the-scenes projects for “Miss Congeniality,” “Van Helsing” and “Fast & Furious.”
In 2003, he was hired as a behind-the-scenes cameraman for “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” When the mysterious Texan arrived on set, his future bride, Emily, took notice.
The Brit had joined the crew on the previous film as a personal assistant to Emma Watson, who played Hermione Granger. Emily’s sister taught Watson in kindergarten and knew producers were looking for someone to mentor the young actress. Emily got along well with Watson and was hired to work with her for the next five years.
The couple met outside the Shrieking Shack and developed a friendship over the next several months. When filming wrapped, Miles went back home before returning for the fourth film. That’s when the magic happened.
They kept their relationship a secret at first and enjoyed London together without baggage before telling the crew. It was a fun and exciting time before two years of overseas, long-distance dating. Miles proposed at the top of Reunion Tower, and the two married in 2007 in Big Sur, California.
“Harry Potter truly changed my life,” Emily says. “I wouldn’t have met Miles. It was hard work, but it was a magical time. I never once took it for granted. I was eternally grateful I had that opportunity. It changed the trajectory of my life.”
“The most tragic things can lead to the greatest things.”
If it weren’t for Miles, Emily would not have come back to Dallas. Before they met, she had visited only once before for a public relations conference at the Hilton Anatole. They left the hotel only once to drive by the old Texas School Book Depository, where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
“I thought it was the most terrible place I had ever been,” she says.
But Miles showed her a side of Dallas that can’t be seen from the freeway. They walked around White Rock Lake, got drinks at cool neighborhood bars and visited filming locations that Miles remembered from “Walker, Texas Ranger.”
Emily misses the green hills of Yorkshire, but their house near Norbuck Park reminds her of home. It’s located next to a network of rarely used trails, and on rainy days, she and the kids — a second-grader at Hexter Elementary and a sixth-grader at Talented and Gifted — love to explore the woods.
“The most tragic things can lead to the greatest things,” Miles says. “The kidnapping, as horrible as it was, happened, and life goes on. There was a film inspired by my dad’s diary, and I did the behind-the-scenes making of that film. That led me to Harry Potter, and that led me to where I am now, sitting next to Emily in Dallas.”