He Named Me Malala

I was a girl in a land where rifles are fired in celebration of a son, while daughters are hidden away behind a curtain, their role in life simply to prepare food and give birth to children.” Malala Yousafzai

She was also in a land where girls were in danger for trying to get an education. He Named Me Malala, a documentary by Davis Guggenheim, is the compelling story of Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani girl from the beautiful remote Swat region, who champions girls’ rights to education. Her father Ziauddin Yousafzai named her after a national Pakistani folk hero, a female who rallied Pashtun fighters against British troops in 1880 and led her people to victory in battle saying, “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 days as a slave.” October of 2012 on the way to school on a bus, the real Malala was shot in the head by the Taliban who wanted to squelch her activism. Not expected to survive, after surgery and therapy in England, she thrives and continues to speak out for the right to education. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, the youngest person to ever receive the honor.
The extremists are afraid of books and pens, the power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women.” ~ Malala

I had read her book I Am Malala a year ago and anticipated an okay movie but was surprised with one that was informative, artistic and moving. Through news clips, I saw images of the Swat region, learned how the Taliban leader Fazlullah slid the slope from a welcome religious leader to a violent one who was threatened by education, killed people who were outspoken and burned schools.  (Shades of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451?)  When doing a documentary and trying to relate a timeline, it is impossible to film scenes that have already occurred unless they are reenacted. In this documentary, these gaps are filled in artistically with shadowy, out of focus moving images and beautiful animations. Throughout the film, there is a beautiful balance and flow with elements of news images, artistic images and real-life family scenes. 

Voice becomes a symbolic element. Malala’s father stuttered when he was a child but eventually overcame this to give speeches. In the animations, voice is shown graphically as waves of Urdu traveling from a speaker’s mouth. Sometimes the black lines swim out and then fall downward but, when successful, bright waves flow far outward.
I raise up my voice-not so I can shout but so that those without a voice can be heard...we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.” ~ Malala

When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.”  ~ Malala

In the film, Malala is shown interacting with her family as any normal teenager does. When asked what her life would be like if she had been an ordinary girl from Swat, Malala answers, “I’m still an ordinary girl, but if I had an ordinary father and an ordinary mother, then I’d have two children now.” She giggles as she looks at photos of tennis and cricket players and Brad Pitt, she admits her struggles with homework and grades, she arm wrestles with one of her brothers and shows her autographed copy of her own book.

The documentary clearly communicates the relationship between a daughter and her progressive father but does not say much about Malala’s reserved mother. As they travel about in their new home in England, her mother tells her not to shake hands with men and to look down. Malala responds, “If they can look at me, I can look at them.” Mother and daughter are from two generations.

From what I’ve read, most people who experience near-death events, such as the Taliban's attempt on Malala’s life, have to deal with PTSD. I wonder if she receives therapy for this horrible experience but the film does not delve into this. She is questioned and encouraged to talk about her physical and emotional pain but she is reluctant and the filmmaker does not press her to do so. Instead, it is shown through images. In the hospital scenes, Malala rarely smiles. Her pain is evident on her face without words. After her recovery, in the film she seems to smile and laugh all the time—but not quite. There are wordless images of her unsmiling face with shadows flickering and falling on it. The smiles disappear and her thoughts retreat to darker layers. The filmmaker obviously made a decision to allow a young girl to control how much pain she would share. Mostly revealing the positive and moving forward may very well be her therapy for dealing with the past.

Near the end of the movie, part of her speech at the United Nations strikes an emotional nerve. Her clear, passionate voice rings out in the General Assembly for the entire world to hear—a voice that is stronger than ever, in spite of those who would silence it. That is the time for the tissue.
I am not a lone voice. I am many.”  ~ Malala

After seeing the film tonight, both my husband and I agree that it should be up for an Academy Award for documentary film. Not all reviewers agree with this, however. Some suggest that it verges on manipulation of an icon and does not go beneath the surface. I suppose these people were expecting a different purpose for the film. I was not. I see the purpose as a narrative of a modern-day young, inspirational female hero that included historical facts, told the story in the most artistic way that an attempted murder might be told, and connected with me emotionally. This film is 87 minutes long and choices had to be made about what to put in, what to leave out and how to focus the content. I am sure there are many other layers in the story but they should be revealed in a different film.

Today, Malala’s activism reaches beyond Pakistan, a home that she and her family cannot return to without certain attempts on their lives. The film shows scenes in some parts of  the world where children are not guaranteed an education and girls especially are forbidden to attend school. Worldwide, more than half of the children out of school are girls. A United Nations report states there are 57 million children in the world who do not have a school to go to. According to Unesco, these countries have the most children out of school: Nigeria, Pakistan, Ethiopia, India, Philippines, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Niger, Yemen and Mali. I'm sure in an updated report, this list would include Syria.
One child, one teacher, one book and one pen—they can change the world.” ~ Malala

If I were still teaching middle school, I would organize a field trip for my students to see this movie. I’m hoping that many students from grades 7-12 will see this. There is a good chance this will happen because National Geographic announced that it has acquired broadcasting rights to the film and will air it in 171 countries in 45 languages. In addition, a free curriculum guide for secondary classes and a discussion guide for college classes will be available in English and other languages.

Let us pick up our books and our pens, they are the most powerful weapons." ~ Malala

Trailer: https://youtu.be/vE5gSHJkusU    

He Named Me Malala: Documentary
Runtime: 87 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Availability: Select theaters October 9
Director: Davis Guggenheim
Music composed by: Thomas Newman
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Producers: Davis Guggenheim, Laurie MacDonald, Walter Parkes


  1. I purchased tickets for Malala this morning, will see it Monday. I'm so happy that I arrived at Journeys last nite, in time to see where and when Malala is playing.


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