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Joseph Miko; filmed Hungarian Revolution

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Dennis McLellan
Los Angeles Times / May 14, 2008

LOS ANGELES - Joseph S. Miko, a former cameraman whose extensive footage of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution was smuggled out of Budapest and is considered a significant piece of the documentary record of the historic national uprising against Soviet oppression, has died. He was 87.

Mr. Miko died of blood cancer April 28 at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center, said his son, Joe.

A retired owner of camera and electronic stores in the Los Angeles area, Mr. Miko was forced to flee Hungary with his family after capturing the short-lived revolution on film.

Some of the footage that Mr. Miko shot of the crowds of demonstrators and the ensuing fighting in the streets of Budapest was shown on "The 20th Century," the CBS documentary series narrated by Walter Cronkite. More than four decades later, Mr. Miko and his footage were featured in a segment of the four-part History Channel special "Caught on Film."

Mr. Miko's footage, which he stored in his garage for decades before donating 177 minutes worth to the Hungarian National Film Archive in 1993, also has been used in the recent documentaries "Freedom's Fury" and "Torn From the Flag."

A 1954 graduate of the state-operated Academy of Drama and Film in Budapest, he sometimes worked as a newsreel cameraman. Mr. Miko was returning from a film location Oct. 23, 1956, when he saw a crowd of marching university students.

"He always carried a hand-held 35 millimeter camera and when he got into the city and saw the university students marching and demonstrating, he started shooting the marchers," his son told the Los Angeles Times.

From street and rooftop vantage points, Mr. Miko captured dramatic images as the number of marchers swelled and filled a massive city plaza.

He filmed demonstrators attacking a toppled statue of former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin with a sledgehammer and cutting a Communist party emblem out of a Hungarian flag with a pocket knife - and he later filmed a crowd of demonstrators running for their lives as members of the secret police shot at them.

Mr. Miko's son said that his father gave the footage he had shot to his father-in-law, "who smuggled it piecemeal into the American Embassy."

Mr. Miko also hid copies of his footage in his locker at the film studio. Outside the studio several days later, Mr. Miko recalled on the History Channel program, he encountered colleagues who warned him not to go inside because the Russians were waiting for him - and to not go home because they knew his address.

But he did return home, telling his wife, Eva, that he had to get out of the country.

Recalled Mr. Miko's son, "My parents woke me up and packed a few things in a backpack, and we walked out in the middle of the night."

After crossing the border, part of the group wound up being captured. But after hours of walking, the Miko family finally reached Vienna on a bus.

Calling friends in Budapest from Vienna, Mr. Miko was shocked to learn that the Soviets had found and confiscated the footage in his locker and were using it to identify people.

"I felt real bad about this because I never thought about that," he said on the History Channel program. "Lots of people went to jail because of my footage, so I think in a way I did a lot of damage."

Mr. Miko's son said the American Embassy in Budapest got his father's film out of Hungary in a US diplomatic pouch.

Moving to Los Angeles and finding it difficult to get a job in the film industry, Mr. Miko worked first as a tool and die maker.

He worked on a few low-budget independent films, including "The Sadist." He was the camera operator on the 1963 thriller, whose cinematographer was a friend from Hungary who also had shot footage of the revolution: Vilmos Zsigmond, who would go on to win an Oscar for his work on "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

For his filming of the Hungarian Revolution, Mr. Miko decades later received the Hungarian government's Award of Excellence in Achievement, the Hero of Freedom Award and the Cross of the Order of Merit.

In addition to his son, he leaves his second wife, Victoria; and two grandchildren.

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