This featured article was written by a Student Journalist Program participant and was reviewed by mentors from The Washington Post prior to publishing.
Erich Roland, a cinematographer based in Oakton Virginia, recently completed filming a documentary on Malala Yousafzai, the girl who recovered from being shot by the Taliban and then won the Nobel Prize. Roland has worked on many films, but he says this is one he is especially grateful to have been involved in.
Roland has been working on documentaries since he was 18 years old. Some of his well-known work includes “Waiting for Superman” and “It Might Get Loud.”
Working on documentaries like these is “very gratifying on just about every level,” Roland said. “I like working with real people and real stories in real situations rather then actors on sets and make believe.”
In his latest project, Roland has been traveling around the world filming Malala Yousafzai.
Malala is a Pakistani activist for female and youth education. She was born and raised in the Swat Valley in the Khyber Pakhtunkwa province of Pakistan where the Taliban have on occasion forbid girls from attending school. After being a BCC blogger on her life under Taliban control and gaining influence through interviews, Malala was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize.
In October of 2012, Malala was waiting on her school bus when a member of the Taliban asked for her by name and then proceeded to shoot her three times. The bullet just missed her brain. Malala survived after being in critical condition and sent to recover at Queen Elisabeth hospital in Birmingham, England. She still resides in England today.
Roland and crew, with director Davis Guggenheim, started filming in summer of 2013, when 16-year-old Malala went to New York to speak at the United Nations, nine months after being shot. At the UN, Malala spoke about her mission to ensure education for every child.
Filming ended in December 2014 in Oslo, Norway where Malala, now 17, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest person to ever receive the award.
“Although I knew her story before I had met her, I wasn’t sure what to expect. She is a remarkable young woman in so many ways,” said Roland. In 30 days of filming over a year and a half, time with Malala ran the gamut from large events where she was the guest of honor, to hanging out at the family home. While filming, Roland traveled with her to five countries including England, Jordan, Kenya, Nigeria and Norway.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee decided to award Malala because, “Despite her youth, Malala Yousafzay has already fought for several years for the rights of girls to education, and has shown by example that children and young people, too, can contribute to improving their own situations.”
Roland notes that woman and young girls seem to be especially entranced by her story and her dedication to taking on both education and girl’s rights as her causes. Roland noted that Malala is not like other teenagers, comparing her to his own daughter when she was 17.
“She is smart, wise beyond her years, poised and seemingly unflappable. I’ve been with her on 2-3 different occasions when she was about to give a big speech, and she is totally calm and focused, just quietly going through notes and making changes. I think she is from another world somehow; she seems to be fearless of anything and her cause is her passion and motivator,” said Roland.
Over the course of the film, Roland became very fond of the Yousafzai family. “I will miss the time we spent. I also just adore her father Zia, just one of the sweetest men I’ve even known, and both brothers are hilarious,” said Roland.
The time with her family was when Malala’s youth shone through. “When we were spending time around Malala’s home she seemed very much like any teenager including my daughter in many ways,” explained Roland.
“We spent a lot of time at Malala’s home with her family and there were many warm, fun and unguarded moments,” Roland said. “The most fun is when her brothers are around, they have a banter that looks like any other family and you can quickly forget she is this world superstar and just see a 16-year-old girl wrestling with her brothers, or bantering about this or that small issue”.
Malala is often in the limelight, however, Roland noted that she rarely acted like a celebrity. “She has not much ego, and no entitlement kind of things going on, so totally approachable and human in every way. Often her schedule was way worse than ours (the film crew), yet she seemed to always be ready for the next event and I never heard a complaint or a roll of the eyes… ever,” confessed Roland.
More than most projects Roland has worked on, security was always on the mind of the crew. Although still a target, Malala doesn’t let fear halt her mission to spread awareness of the importance of educating youth. “She has been given a 2nd chance at life and her causes (I think she believes) are her reason for living, and she has no fear of death,” said Roland. Roland admits making this film and getting to know Malala and her family has been a highlight for him in his life no matter the outcome of the film project,.
“Young girls have a bad deal in many parts of this world and its heart warming to see this young woman get recognized for this work. This documentary was easy to get caught up in, and I can shed tears right now just thinking about the courage this young woman has shown in her cause for girls around the world,” said Roland.