Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban in 2012 for speaking out in support of girls’ education in Pakistan. Since then, based in the UK, she has continued her advocacy. She is the youngest-ever Nobel laureate: when it was awarded last year, she was just 17.
No doubt, then, that Malala, who grew up in Pakistan’s Swat valley and went on to inspire the world, is a truly remarkable young woman. But He Named Me Malala tells her personal story, whilst also shining a light on the wider global issue of the systematic exclusion of children, and especially girls, from education.
David Guggenheim’s documentary captures Malala’s everyday life as both a young teenager and a global activist through poignant and often humorous interview scenes. Malala is followed around her home, through school, to television interviews and global summits to spread her message of educational equality.
There are also hard-hitting clinical reconstructions of Malala’s emergency surgery in the UK after she was shot, brashly juxtaposed with the animated depiction of her upbringing in the Swat Valley. The dreamy style of these animations works well to capture the nostalgia of a life to which Malala and her family can no longer return.
Malala’s distinctiveness and bravery is reinforced by the way the film plays off the many juxtapositions of her life – voice and silence, empowerment and oppression, the triumph over tragedy. In so doing, it blends together a palpable sense of injustice with an unwavering commitment to hope. Malala speaks eloquently about everything from her favourite books and film stars to world politics. Her personal experience of suffering, however, remains wrapped in stoic silence.
Seemingly inconsequential, but touching moments of quotidian family life do well to pull you in emotionally to the heart-warming experiences of the Yousafzai family, who now live in the UK. Her relationship with her father, the “he” of the film’s title, is particularly focused on. Ordinary portraits of Malala’s giggling girlish coyness and childish banter with her brothers are a welcome reprise from the film’s prodigal tendencies. Indeed, these moments are crucial: they undercut the propensity of the film to romanticise Malala’s heroism. It is the very ordinariness of Malala’s everyday life, contrasted with the unnerving tenacity of her speeches to the UN, that pulls the rug from under our awe-inspired feet.
These touching moments are also important in the way they disrupt stereotypical imaginations of the “Islamic Other”, so often portrayed negatively in mainstream cinema and the media. The value of this simple depiction of a Muslim family being like any other family living in the UK cannot be overstated.
At the same time, many other wider political concerns are only hinted at. Nuggets of insight, such as Malala’s father’s claim that “the Taliban is not a person. It is an ideology”, certainly give the film a political flavour but could have been delved into in more detail.
Similarly, a 30-second clip of some Pakistani men agreeing with the Taliban’s threat to shoot Malala should she return is interesting, but also warranted more attention, particularly because it could have helped the audience better understand the everyday Pakistani perspective.
While this certainly makes for a good story, I couldn’t help but wonder about the voices of the people – in particular, the young girls – living back in Pakistan. Although the film uses Malala’s experience as a prism for thinking about the injustice of a lack of education globally, it may have been a more powerful argument for social change if the film had spent more time examining the reality of those left behind.
But despite this small niggle, He Named me Malala is a very important film. It does the crucial job of sharing the exceptional story of an exceptional young woman with a wider audience. And as an accomplished narrative of a heroic girl standing for what she believes in, it can do no wrong. But it is the moments of ordinariness that give the film real traction.
It is these moments that inspire and show us that any person, anywhere, can muster a voice. And a powerful, revolutionary one at that.