In September 1994, Miles Hargrove’s father was abducted at gunpoint and held for ransom by guerrillas affiliated with a Colombian drug cartel.
While his family endured a gut-wrenching yearlong negotiation with the kidnappers for Tom Hargrove’s release, Miles turned on his Super-8 camera.
Then a sophomore at TCU, Miles Hargrove shot a video diary throughout the ordeal, the remarkable footage of which comprises almost the entirety of Miracle Fishing, a documentary more than two decades in the making that will begin streaming Thursday on the Discovery+ platform.
These days, he watches the raw footage with mixed emotions — both through the eyes of someone who experienced every perilous moment firsthand, and also as an experienced Dallas-based filmmaker who cringes at the camerawork of his younger self.
“When I started shooting, it was meant as a home video for my dad,” Hargrove said. “I didn’t shoot it like a professional would. I didn’t mess around with establishing shots or set the scene as I’ve learned to do later on. It was so sloppy. It was a process learning how to embrace all the mistakes.”
Tom Hargrove was based in Colombia at the time, working as an agricultural researcher. He was abducted at random by rebels looking for a payday. Lacking resources or meaningful government assistance, the family gathered with friends and acquaintances to plot a grassroots rescue mission.
During the standoff, Miles Hargrove admits family members used his camera to lighten the mood, but also to critique and coach their efforts.
“There became a sense of normalcy with it. We had so much time on our hands. I went from being extremely nervous to not even giving it a second thought. That’s when the camera started capturing stuff,” he said. “That was a survival instinct. You can’t stay in a state of panic for months on end. It’s just the way we adapt to certain situations. What blew my mind was how well we seemed to deal with it all.”
After returning home to finish his degree, Hargrove knew that someday he wanted to make a documentary, but lacked the skills to make it happen. Meanwhile, the family’s story became the basis for the highly embellished 2000 thriller Proof of Life, starring Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan, during which Hargrove interned for director Taylor Hackford.
A year later, after he had started working behind the scenes on other big-budget Hollywood films and subsequently secured his first editing system, Hargrove decided to give it a shot. However, he needed a financial partner.
By 2008, he found a potential investor, but that fell through when the stock market crashed. Then both of his parents died 15 months apart.
“I just put it away. I couldn’t deal with it,” he said. “I worked on some other things and gained the experience I needed to tell the story.”
Flash forward almost a decade. Hargrove, who co-directed Michael Cain’s Starck Club documentary among other projects, noticed the 25th anniversary of the incident was approaching.
“I felt like it was time, so I revisited it. Once I opened that door, I couldn’t stop working on it,” Hargrove said. “As time went on, I had distanced myself from it. I started by watching the original tapes from beginning to end and refamiliarizing myself with the footage. It was extremely emotional at first, especially to see my parents again. It was this back-and-forth between total attachment and detachment.”
As he spent three years on Miracle Fishing, Hargrove sometimes struggled to separate his responsibilities as a documentary filmmaker from his emotional involvement in the project.
“It became this time capsule because it took so long,” he said. “But I think that’s to its benefit because I was able to look at it from a very different perspective.”
After finishing the film early last year, Hargrove landed a slot in the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival. However, the festival pivoted online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Hargrove still hasn’t had the benefit of audience interaction in a theater.
“I don’t have the complete feeling of closure yet,” he said. “It’s about to come out on a much bigger scale. That’s really exciting. It’s so different from the way I thought it was going to be, but I can’t complain.”