Last fall, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban found himself at the wrong end of a CIA drone strike. For veteran Victoria journalist Mohsin Abbas, the timing couldn’t have been better for his documentary film.
The violent demise of the Taliban commander elevated another hardline militant named Mullah Fazlullah to the top job, the same man who ordered the assassination of Malala Yousafzai, a teenager now famous the world over for speaking out for girls’ right to education.
Abbas, who lives in Saanich, spent much of last year in his home country of Pakistan filming a documentary on Malala’s life and work. Part of that work included interviews with Fazlullah.
“We have details and exclusive stuff on the new head of the Taliban. He is featured in the film talking to my producer,” Abbas remarked. “That is a real bonus for me.”
His film, titled Malala: A Girl from Paradise, draws together interviews with teachers and friends of the charismatic and brave girl who defied the Taliban and blogged for the BBC Urdu service, effectively as a 12-year-old war correspondent.
Her fight against extremism and growing international profile became intolerable for militant leaders. On Oct. 9, 2012, gunmen shot Malala, then 15, twice in the head in a school bus in her village. She survived and now lives in the U.K.
“Why she got a bullet is not well covered,” Abbas says. “It was a year ago she was shot. Things haven’t changed (in Pakistan) since then.” In fact, he noted the shooting likely helped Fazlullah’s rise to power. “When he ordered the shooting of Malala, his profile went up.”
Abbas saw first hand corruption and inaction at work when his crew found a sign announcing a new $500,000 school due to be finished in 2009, and nothing but an empty field.
“The film covers the challenges Pakistan youth are facing. There are about 27 million children out of school. More than 7 million have never been in primary school,” he said. “Schools in the Swat Valley are still as they were in 2009. The government has failed to rebuild schools blown up.”
Abbas wrapped up interviews and editing last summer and fall after trips to Europe and Pakistan for his largely self-funded project. At the same time, Malala’s fame spread as she spoke at the United Nations, met President Barack Obama, and appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, among other high-profile engagements.
“She was high profile before she left Pakistan. Now she’s known all over the planet. To me she is still a child and the media should allow her to enjoy her childhood and teen life,” Abbas said. “But all the publicity hasn’t changed her. She hates to skip school. When she met the Queen, she scheduled it during her time off.”
Abbas, a 39-year-old newspaper journalist who fled Pakistan in 2002 after being imprisoned, risked his life filming in the rough tribal areas of Swat Valley, and said he was nearly caught in a number of bomb blasts.
For his second trip during the summer, he kept a low profile and grew out his beard, but the project still caught the wrong kind of attention – one of his “fixers” ended up on a Taliban hit list, he said. “Security guys thought I was a driver. I had a little beaten up car and traditional dress,” he said.
Back home in Saanich, he’s concentrating on landing a broadcasting deal and submitting the documentary to film festivals. He speaks regularly with Malala’s father, and hopes the teen can come to Canada for a film screening.
“My film is a small project. Hollywood is after them to make a film,” he says. “I’m honoured to work on a project which has the support of her family.”
Malala: A Girl from Paradise doesn’t yet have a release date. Check out malala-film.com for updates.