Screen Pass: Portrait of a young rebel

On October 9, 2012,  a Taliban gunman sent to kill one of the extremist group’s main targets shot 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai in the left side of her forehead. She was on her way home from school in Pakistan’s Swat Valley when the gunman pulled her bus over. Yousafzai’s tenacious public advocacy for girls’ education rights in Pakistan did not sit well the Taliban, who issued her a death sentence earlier that year. Yet, after four successful years of activism, Yousafzai was not ready to end her revolutionary pursuit for girls’ education just yet—regardless of the Taliban’s attack on her life. 

“He Named Me Malala” is a film that follows Yousafzai as she navigates her private and public life since the attack. It features her efforts to improve the educational infrastructure for girls in countries such as Nigeria, revealing the work that made her the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate ever.

Directed by Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”), the documentary focuses on Yousafzai’s story as she tells it—alternating between interviews and footage filmed after her shooting, and media content from the years leading up to it. Containing some of the themes that Yousafzai touched upon in her book I Am Malala,  the two-hour film highlights her accomplishments, daily activities, and goals for the future.

It’s hard to fathom the scope of Yousafzai’s day-to-day life. Take, for example, one scene that shows her giggling at a video of the Despicable Me minions in her family’s home in Brigham, London. This fleeting moment of innocence is interrupted by a phone call from a journalist: “Malala, the Taliban says that they will kill you if you ever return to Pakistan,” the voice says. “What do you think about this?”

Another scene shows Yousafzai speaking before hundreds of influential people at the United States Senate. She narrates, “Some people think, ‘Malala is lucky—she’s now with Hillary Clinton, she’s with Bono, she’s with rock stars.’ But on the other side, I get homework as well.”

The film also centers on the indivisible bond between Yousafzai and her father, exhibiting their tenacity as fighters for educational rights. Both refused to halt their efforts after their forced relocation to London from Pakistan. This is where He Named Me Malala abandons the hagiographic clichés that are common in so many documentaries.

Ziauddin Yousafzai’s story is equally as captivating as his daughter’s—overcoming a speech impediment as a child taught him the ineffable power of speech. This is an important value that he has instilled in Malala’s mind. She reflects on his determination to be heard, saying, “One thing that I notice in my father—even if he stammers for one minute, he will try to say that word. He never stops. If you have a stammer, you can just stop it, and you can say another word instead. But my father never does that.”

Throughout the film, we are reminded of Yousafzai’s incredible courage in combating the Taliban’s forces and in confronting the issues of education that so many societies refuse to acknowledge. However, it is important to recognize the new struggles that Yousafzai must face as she transitions between homes. The film is somehow able to skirt over this fact, showing only a few short scenes that barely reveal the strife associated with adapting to a new culture, people, and surroundings. At one point, Yousafzai’s interviewer comments that she doesn’t like to discuss her sadness, to which she replies “yes.” In this sense, the film does not succeed in transcending the drawbacks of the kind of celebrity lifestyle imposed by Western values.

Aside from its few predictable flaws, the film’s message is clear. When Yousafzai is asked if she ever gets angry, she replies, “Islam teaches us humanity, equality and forgiveness.” This is a valuable and, ironically, highly educational film. Go see it.      

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