One Tuesday last October, a gunman stormed a school bus in the Swat District of Pakistan and shot Malala Yousafzai in the head. It was a brazen attempt to silence a young girl who dared to speak out for women’s rights.
The attack on Malala made headlines around the world. The fearless 15-year-old, who wrote about life under the rule of the Pakistani Taliban survived two bullets, and after a number of surgeries, she was eventually flown to the U.K. to recover. In Victoria, veteran journalist Mohsin Abbas knew this was the time to document her story for the world.
“The moment (Malala) was attacked I wanted to jump in. I know the nature of her story and the impact of her story. I knew how Canada would respond,” said Abbas, 38, and who lives in Saanich. “There was no time to wait. I just thought it up and left. I jumped on a plane and started filming the (people) in her life.”
Abbas, who was born and raised in Pakistan and worked there as a journalist until 2002, hired a film crew in Pakistan and conducted interviews in and around Malala’s home in the Swat Valley, from November until March this year.
Shooting the documentary was profoundly dangerous work – Abbas narrowly escaped bomb blasts at two locations during interviews. “Her enemies are enemies of myself,” he said. “It’s quite dangerous to do that work. But now I’m going back to finish the film. We have to tell the story.”
Four years ago, Malala started blogging under a pseudonym through the BBC Urdu service. A documentary on Malala by the New York Times told her story to the wider world of a girl who defied the Taliban and regressive elements of her society. The Taliban had banned education for girls in the Swat Valley in the tribal North-West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan.
“(The Taliban) tried to blow up schools, slaughtered, murdered and flogged women in the village squares. Malala challenged them. A 12-year-old took a stand and made the statement: ‘How are you going to stop me from writing and getting an education?’” Abbas said. “Her story highlights problems in the region. She took a chance, took a bullet and took the world stage as well. She deserves (the fame) big time, she is a brilliant child.”
Abbas spent the past five months interviewing Malala’s friends, family, teachers and hardline elements around her home in Mingora in the Swat Valley, a place known as “Paradise.” Malala’s message has resonated through Pakistani society – in one village where generations of girls are raised as folk dancers, Abbas said mothers are now demanding their daughters receive an education. He also spoke with two girls shot in the same attack on Malala, who still live in the same area. “They are still living there and living in fear, constantly under threat from the Taliban.”
“I went to see what people think. People are optimistic, motivated by these brave girls who fight for educational rights. These people support girls’ education,” Abbas said.
“I talked to people who are still opposed (to women’s education). But I talked to kids of Taliban commanders who support the idea of women’s education. That shows big changes,” he said.
Abbas plans to travel to Birmingham, U.K., next month to interview Malala, and then back to Pakistan to finish shooting and editing his documentary, titled Malala: A Girl from Paradise. Malala, who has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, is living in Birmingham under guard, attending school and undergoing medical treatment for her injuries.
Abbas fled to Canada in 2002 after being imprisoned and tortured, he said, under the regime of Pervez Musharraf. He had worked as a journalist for major daily newspapers, and continued to do so in Canada. These days Abbas works as a stringer for BBC Urdu service and consults for papers such as the New York Post.
He self-funded his first round of filming Pakistan – “God bless a line of credit and a credit card.” This time around he is running an Indiegogo campaign to raise $20,000. He plans to debut the film in Canada this September, although it remains uncertain where. Abbas said he plans to screen it in Victoria this year.
He also said he has a “Plan B” to have the film edited and distributed in the event he is killed in Pakistan.
“No matter what happens to me, this film will come to life, it will come to the world,” Abbas said. “God forbid if something happens to me, people will see this film.”
Check out malala-film.com. See the Indiegogo campaign at indiegogo.com/projects/film-malala-a-girl-from-paradise.