Your Small Video Star

As the courageous 14-year-old Pakistani education activist Malala Yousufzai fought for her life after being shot by the Taliban on Tuesday, freelance journalist Adam Ellickwrites in the New York Times about his experience producing a two-part film about her in 2009. For Yousufzai and Ellick, participating in the project had the promise and pitfalls that compelling subjects and the filmmakers who portray them frequently encounter: on one hand, the opportunity to tell a powerful story, starring its subject, in a visual medium; on the other, the risk the resultant visibility poses for subject and storyteller. 

Recently, documentary feature films such as Laura Poitras’s My Country, My Country and The Oath, and Mimi Chakarova’s The Price of Sex illustrate this challenge. Poitras, whose films portray Iraqi activists and former Osama bin Laden associates, sweated over the potential reprisals she knew her subjects could face, and she herself continues to be detained at airports because of her association with them. Chakarova, whose film is about sex trafficking, risked her safety to delve into a dangerous world, where many of the subjects who agreed to speak about their part in it did so at their own peril. 

There is no suggestion that Ellick’s pieces, which were featured on the New York Times website as short documentaries, were the cause of the attack on Yousufzai. But in the wake of her shooting, he writes of his personal attachment and sense of obligation to her. After producing the story, Ellick writes, “Malala and her father, Ziauddin, had become my friends.” Ziauddin, also a dedicated education activist, told Ellick he was willing to die for the cause. “But I never asked Malala if she was willing to die as well,” Ellick says. He writes that the last correspondence he received from her stated, in all capital letters, “I WANT AN ACCESS TO THE WORLD OF KNOWLEDGE.” She signed it, “YOUR SMALL VIDEO STAR.”