He Named Me Malala

Director: Davis Guggenheim


I was first introduced to Malala’s incredible story two years ago when she appeared on The Daily Show. Like everyone else I was struck by how gracious and compassionate she was given what she had to endure, especially at such a young age. Despite having undergone an unimaginable trauma and being exiled from her home she showed no sign of hate or anger, but instead displayed exceptional benevolence and wilful determination. She talked about the virtues of education with such insight and wisdom beyond her years that I was overcome with astonishment and humility. Her resolve to not give way to fear and violence but instead to stand up for peace, knowledge and harmony serves as a truly inspiring example to us all. The story of this extraordinary young woman is one that deserves to be documented and shared with people all over the world. The film that Davis Guggenheim has directed does just that and is as enthralling as it is educational.

Over the past couple of years Malala Yousafzai has become such a strong symbol and figurehead for peace and education that it’s easy to forget she is at her core an ordinary teenage girl. She bickers with her brothers, struggles with her homework and looks at pictures of celebrities. She is smart, strong-willed and brave but she is also modest, mild-mannered and bashful. She may be one of the most influential and inspirational people in the free world but she is also a young girl adjusting to a new life in a foreign country. Although she lives in a secure house with her family and goes to a good school with other girls her own age, she still dreams of one day returning to Pakistan and seeing her old house and friends again. It is a difficult and a frightening trial for any person to go through but she has not allowed it to dampen her spirits. Throughout this film Malala smiles and laughs, remains cheerful and upbeat and maintains a translucent optimism that never wavers.

The origin of Malala’s name is provided in this film by the story of Malalai of Maiwand, an Afghani folk-hero. According to legend Malalai was a teenage girl who entreated the Pashtun army not to give up hope in the wake of the Second Anglo-Afghan War in the late 19th century. She inspired these soldiers to make their stand against the British troops at the Battle of Maiwand in 1880. Although Malalai was shot and killed in this battle, the Afghans were in the end victorious and venerated her as a martyr and a hero. The name today means ‘sad’ or ‘grieved’ in Pashto but Ziauddin Yousafzai, Malala’s father, relates that to him the name has a different meaning: ‘bravery’. When he bestowed this name upon his daughter it is as if he knew she was destined for greatness. Yet Malala maintains that although her father gave her the name, it was not he who made her Malala. Her father taught her and inspired her to become the person she is today, but the decision to stand up and to speak out on a girl’s right for education was hers and hers alone.

This film is about more than Malala though. It is about her mother and two younger brothers who continue to be valuable sources of love and support in her life. It is about her father who became a public speaker for those less fortunate than himself, as his own father had been before him, and who continues to inspire Malala in her global campaign. It is about the millions of children around the world who don’t have access to education and who need a champion like Malala to be their voice and to speak on their behalf. Malala herself said it best when she proclaimed, “I am not a lone voice, I am many. And our voices are our most powerful weapons”. This film gets to the heart of not only who Malala is but also of what she represents. On one level she is a young girl who gets nervous about her GCSEs and who blushes at the prospect of asking a boy out, but on another level she is a shining symbol of hope and power, just like her namesake.

The story of Malalai, as well as other stories and memories of the Yousafzais, are depicted in this film through stunning animated sequences. These animations are expressive and lyrical in their depictions of the Pakistani landscape and its people and contribute a profound sense of artistry and poetry to Malala’s story. The best documentaries are the ones that contribute more than talking heads and conventional footage to discuss points of interest. They utilise journalistic styles and artistic techniques to communicate truths and convey stories in ways that other artistic mediums cannot. They explore universal themes that broaden our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. They provoke emotional responses from us and allow us to form personal connections with the subjects. Guggenheim understands this and provides a profoundly effective portrayal of a wholly extraordinary young woman and the cause that she stands for.

He Named Me Malala is not the most artistic, groundbreaking or insightful documentary ever made, but its subject matter is so special and so important that this film demands to be seen by everyone. Malala asserts that the best way to overcome war, terrorism and violence and build a bright and peaceful future is through education. Only by imparting the lessons of science, mathematics, the humanities, art and language onto the children of the world can they learn how to inspire progress and change towards a better future, a prospect that belongs just as much to girls as it does to boys. I was delighted to find that half of the audience I was with was made up of schoolchildren, all of them girls, because Malala is an outstanding role-model for young girls to look up to. She is a symbol of the limitless possibilities that can be at their disposal through the gift of education and she embodies the qualities of kindness, resilience, courage, wisdom and compassion. It is a thoroughly moving film that I hope will be able to reach and inspire children everywhere.

★★★★

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