Had 18-year-old Malala Yousafzai stayed on the same life course as an average girl in the Swot Valley of Pakistan, she would already be a mother of two. But thank goodness that the now-Nobel Laureate embraced her destiny as someone extraordinary. Thanks to a new documentary by Davis Guggenheim, “He Named Me Malala,” her message of hope and equality can reach even more people.
Malala became an international icon when the Taliban occupiers of her town shot (and nearly killed) her for attempting to attend school. For them, enlightened women threaten their orthodoxy, so this occupying force has attempted to relegate them to purely religious education that will reify their current gendered arrangement. But by trying to silence Malala’s vocal opposition, the Taliban created a worldwide movement to guarantee the right for all children – especially girls – to receive the education they deserve.
Perhaps most extraordinary about the entire ordeal is that Malala bears no ill will or resentment towards her attackers. (I, on the other hand, still carry a grudge towards the person who cut me off in traffic last week.) To simply call her inspirational just does not even begin to explain the impact of her grace. Personally, as someone who often grapples with how to reconcile their religious convictions with a concern for basic human decency, her effortless deployment of Islam’s tenets as a guiding force behind her compassionate worldview is truly moving.
Guggenheim also makes sure that “He Named Me Malala” does more than saint worship. In some of the documentary’s most memorable moments, we can see Malala acting like any other teenager. She giggles at Minion videos, struggles to feel accepted by her classmates, and gets bashful when talking about boys. Feminist icon though she may be, the thought of asking a boy out still embarrasses her.
The film itself lacks some cohesion as it jumps erratically around to different times in Malala’s life. Guggenheim relies on animated sequences to depict what would normally be portrayed as recreations, though the unconventional choice works just fine. Ultimately, any structural quibbles are easily forgotten in the wake of a figure that can so easily bring out the common humanity in all of us. Heck, she even got Queen Elizabeth II to smile! B+ /