Malala Yousafzai is a now eighteen-year-old, Nobel Prize-winning teenager who advocates for education for girls primarily in Pakistan but also around the world. The Taliban has tried to assassinate her because of her advocacy. In 2012, she was critically injured in an attack, but she recovered, mostly. The muscles on the left side of her face don’t work correctly, though she is still able to travel and speak. Her resolve is unwavering.
He Named Me Malala is a documentary about her life. Documentarian Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, It Might Get Loud, Waiting for Superman) weaves together contemporary footage of Malala and her family with beautiful animated sequences recreating significant events from earlier in her life and from her parents’ lives. The technique both humanizes Malala by showing how she’s a lot like any other teenager—sequences featuring her brothers who are anything but impressed with their sister really drive this home—and highlights how remarkable a young woman she is and her parents are. Malala’s ordinariness is part of what makes her so inspiring. She’s not a god; she’s just a girl.
The “He” in the film’s title refers to Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai. He Named Me Malala is as much about him as it is about her. Ziauddin was an activist long before Malala was born, and Malala is following his example as she campaigns for the right to eduction for girls (and for boys as well). The documentary goes out of its way to show that Malala’s decision to advocate is her own. Her father isn’t making her do this. The documentary also shows how committed to this cause Ziadduin is as well. Children follow their parents’ example and, if the example is good and the cause is true, make their parents’ causes their cause as well, taking it places the parents were incapable of taking it themselves.
Ultimately, He Named Me Malala is about the things Malala cares about as much as it is about her or her father. Malala herself is an example of the good that comes when all children are given the opportunity of getting a solid education. The film advocates for this right that should be guaranteed to all people around the world.
The enemy in the film isn’t the Taliban. The enemy is the kind of fundamentalism that seeks to control what children are allowed to learn. The enemy is willful ignorance imposed upon society by people afraid of how knowledge will undermine their power. This evil isn’t relegated to Muslim extremists. it’s present anywhere a group of people try to squelch learning wither directly, by limiting what can be taught in a school, or indirectly, by refusing to fund education or by only funding education that benefits their children instead of all children in their community.
The most remarkable thing about Malala and her father is how tirelessly forgiving they are of the people who are trying to harm them. They are not fighting men with guns. They are campaigning against ideologies that try to control what people are allowed to learn. They forgive the men and fight the way of (un)thinking that made the men what they are. Malala and her family are Muslim, and their attitude is an example of the best kind of religious impulse. It’s a religious impulse that makes peace by working to fix world systems without demonizing and destroying the people who are bound up in those systems. For Malala and her father, those fundamentalists are just people who have also been denied access to the truth.
This is the part of the review where I say we could all stand to be a little more like Malala and her father, but that’s only true in that we could all stand to be as forgiving and as long-suffering in our attempts to make peace in our communities. Malala and her father’s work began local. He was just trying to teach children in his neighborhood. It grew from there as Malala grew up and took on her father’s mantle and as forces tried to stop them. We should be more like Malala and her father and do the good work in front of us to do. We should make peace in our communities. If God wants that work to spread, perhaps God will allow persecution to come to us like a fan beating a fire and causing it to spread. Maybe we’ll simply make peace in our communities.
He Named Me Malala is an excellent documentary. You should see it, in part because it’s the kind of documentary that wins Oscars and in part because it might inspire you to be a more forgiving and steadfastly loving person toward the people around you.
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