When Victoria journalist Mohsin Abbas heard the news that Malala Yousafzai had been shot by the Taliban on a school bus in Pakistan, it jarred him.
Mr. Abbas knew her family and in 2009 he helped make connections that led to the girl writing for the BBC about going to school under the shadow of the Taliban.
“The Swat Valley was burning at that time. Schools were being blown up,” Mr. Abbas said of the tensions that existed when Malala, now 15, first started writing under a pen name. By the time she was shot in the head last year, she had become internationally known for her views on the importance of giving girls a chance to get educated.
Malala has recovered from her wounds and is now going to school in England.
Mr. Abbas, who edits a multilingual weekly newspaper in Canada and who freelances for BBC World News, watched the first reports about the assassination attempt with a mix of horror and sadness, sitting with his daughter at home.
“When she was shot … I looked at my little girl right here … and she said, ‘Daddy … we should do something.’ I thought how can we help?”
Mr. Abbas, who fled to Canada in 2002 when his reporting got him in trouble with the military regime then running Pakistan, felt the best thing he could do was to use his skills as a journalist to help tell Malala’s story.
And that’s how the documentary he is now working on, Malala: A Girl From Paradise, began.
“The film explores how the failure to silence Malala has inspired men, women and children, not only in Swat Valley, but beyond the borders of Pakistan,” said Mr. Abbas. “The documentary tells how a young girl from a remote village stood up against Stone Age ideologues, who wanted to take a nation of 200 million back in time.”
Mr. Abbas found himself on the ground in Swat Valley, interviewing Malala’s relatives, friends, teachers and two other girls who were also shot by the Taliban.
Although he was born and raised in the area, there were times he felt he might not get out alive.
“It was quite dangerous. A few places during my travels to different places I had to kiss God, to say goodbye to my life, because I was not sure I would reach my destination,” he said. “It was sad that I had to travel, in the place I was born and raised, under this fear.”
Mr. Abbas said the threat of death was everywhere.
“When I was there a few major bomb blasts happened and they took the lives of 200, 300 people … a few places where I’ve been I barely survived the blast … a couple of friends I worked with lost their lives. They were journalists but they were blown up.”
Mr. Abbas said journalists live under constant threat of attack in Pakistan, and Malala was seen as a journalist because of her blog.
“There is a very common and sad practice of reporters [being killed] … most of the time when I was working with [local] journalists, their eyes were popping out. It looked like they’d never slept for years. But they have nothing to do but to tell the story. So this film will also highlight the lives of reporters in Pakistan,” he said.
Mr. Abbas said it was upsetting to return and see how it had become a place of such violence.
“It was a paradise once. That’s why we called it Girl From Paradise. … And still to me it looks like paradise – but with a lot of disasters there now,” he said.
Mr. Abbas will go to England to interview Malala and her family this spring, and in the summer he will return to Pakistan for the final field work.
“As a journalist I have to tell the story,” he said. “And I want to be part of that movement that’s bringing a big change. Look at my family. My mom never had a chance to go to school. She cannot read or write. So one day I will do this film and I think her soul will be satisfied. It will make her happy. And there will be millions of other mothers, in Pakistan and beyond the borders of Pakistan, who will be happy.”
Information on the documentary can be found at malala-film.com. The film is to be released in September.