Every year, hundreds of teenagers applying for a prestigious Minnesota journalism camp are asked to write about a living person they would most like to interview.
Since the program’s inception in 2001, the most popular choice has been Oprah Winfrey. No surprise there. But as part of the selection committee, I’ve noticed a new candidate creeping up on the Queen of Media’s title, one barely older than the applicants.
Despite their enthusiasm for Malala Yousafzai — and the fact that the 18-year-old has a Nobel Peace Prize on a shelf where most of her peers show off their debate trophies — I wasn’t fully aboard the bandwagon until watching “He Named Me Malala,” a documentary that premieres Monday on the National Geographic Channel.
Now not only do I want to interview her, I want to give her a big hug.
The back story in and of itself is remarkable. At age 11, the Pakistani girl started blogging for the BBC about her country’s actively discouraging girls from getting a proper education. The Taliban responded by trying to kill her.
The assassination attempt, in which a bullet entered and skidded across her face before landing in her shoulder, only spurred on its victim. Since that school bus shooting in 2012, Yousafzai has spoken in front of the United Nations, started her own fund to support primary education in impoverished regions and inspired famous grown-ups such as Madonna, Angelina Jolie and Laura Bush.
But the film, directed by Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”), is not a rehashing of Yousafzai’s past. In fact, his subject matter shies away from recounting the details of the Taliban attack, focusing instead on her message of free, equal opportunities for both genders.
Producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, whose joint credits include “Gladiator” and “Men in Black,” had intended to back a biopic based on the teen’s book, “I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.” But after meeting with Yousafzai and her family, they realized that a documentary would be much more powerful.
“There’s an authenticity to Malala,” MacDonald said in an interview last month in Los Angeles. “When you spend time with her, you see no difference between this powerful speaker and a girl going to school who has the same concerns all girls do. There’s no artifice. That’s why she’s so credible and so moving.”
While the 90-minute film captures some of Yousafzai’s greatest hits, including a disarming appearance on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” the most telling moments take place in the family home, where Yousafzai teases her brothers, giggles at “Minions” and performs magic tricks for friends.
In one of the most heartwarming scenes, captured during 18 months of shooting, Ziauddin Yousafzai urges his daughter to fetch a draft of her U.N. speech, a request she’s more than happy to fulfill, bounding down the stairs as if she were bringing him a report card with straight A’s.
“Usually, people in the house send their children away, but I was different in my treatment of my daughters,” Ziauddin Yousafzai said in a Skype interview with journalists in January from Birmingham, England, where the family settled four years ago. “I believe in the freedom of expression and believing in the freedom of heart, believing in my wife and my daughter right from the very beginning.
“Generally, people of my generation, when they speak, they carefully manipulate things and sometimes to the extent of hypocrisy. But children always need the truth, and what I’ve learned from my daughter I could not have learned from old people. She inspires me and inspires others as well.”
You may not end up swelling up with parental pride after watching “He Named Me Malala,” but the film can’t help but make you rejigger your shortlist of modern-day heroes. At the very least, it’s good fodder to bring up the next time some yahoo starts boasting about his or her daughter’s recent accomplishments at the state swim meet.
It’s shocking that the Academy Awards failed to give the movie a nomination, an oversight somewhat compensated by a win as best documentary last month at the British Academy Film Awards.
Like my teenage applicants, I had hoped to interview Yousafzai about the movie and her future plans. She wasn’t available.
Probably tied up doing homework.