National Geographic assisted in producing a visually captivating and masterfully-spun story centered around Malala Yousafzai, a girl with quite a tale to tell.
Following the publication of her autobiography, this documentary succeeded in conveying Malala’s struggles—but more importantly, her strength.
The film opened with an animated sequence of a Pashtun folktale about the Afghans’ revolution against England, in which a young girl shouts to her fleeing kinfolk: “It is better to live like a lion for one day than a slave for a thousand years.”
Her name was Malala, and she died on the battlefield that day, but her people won the war and were free. Her name signifies not sadness, but bravery.
Immediately after this watercolor narrative, we are shown modern-day news coverage of the Malala who lives today after taking a bullet to the head from the Taliban. Then we see the same girl beginning a new life full of press conferences, talk show appearances, United Nations meetings, book signings and college campus visits.
If you don’t know Malala’s general story, the movie does an acceptable job of introducing context to a presumably naive audience.
For those going into the film with prior knowledge about how being targeted by the Taliban led to Malala’s rise to fame, we learn that her father played a hugely important role in shaping who Malala is and where she is today.
“He Named Me Malala” is a reference to how he named her after the Malala of lore because he wanted her to be an activist, to be courageous and to be different.
His unwavering support of her education and independence throughout childhood in a liberal home nurtured an unquenchable love for learning in Malala.
That passion is evident in the cinematic portrayal of Malala’s story, and it is emphasized that her father’s livelihood was being a teacher in Afghanistan before the Taliban came.
Their family lived in Swat, a relatively isolated town, but the Taliban reached it eventually and imposed ever-harshening regulations that finally amounted to prohibiting girls from attending school.
Initially, we are only provided snapshots of Malala’s early life, with news footage spliced in to complement what she and her father are saying about early-2000s Afghanistan.
The overall flow of the plot is, while not chronological, pleasantly smooth. Transitions between home interviews, public speeches and archival shots are nearly unnoticeable.
Although secular education is the central theme of the movie, it dances around the idea of religious ideologies at times.
While Malala’s family practices Islam, they recognized that the Taliban were not bringing faith to Swat. Rather they thrived on power and exclusion.
Her father even states, “It is not a person (who shot Malala); it is an ideology.”
Malala’s Islam is one of acceptance and “living in a good way.” The Taliban’s god “is a tiny conservative man,” according to her dad.
Throughout the movie, Malala turns to sketching to assist in her explanations of events when questioned about them.
Drawing a diagram of where she and others were sitting on the school bus when they were shot at by the Taliban is a fluid motion in her expression, coming just as naturally to her as drawing a rudimentary world map on a blackboard for African schoolkids.
Perhaps it is Malala’s inclination towards visual, colorful expression of ideas that led the producers to incorporate illustrations of her early childhood and significant historical events into the movie, rather than relying entirely on spoken word.
The decision to do so, from wherever it stemmed, was a solid one. Her illustrations kept the movie’s tone light and allowed for fluid progression even while addressing serious topics.
Particularly enjoyable were the interviewers’ interactions with Malala’s younger brothers. One says, “I think she’s addicted to books; it’s a terrible problem,” before laughing and amending with a “not really.” (Her favorite books, we learn, are A Brief History of Time and The Alchemist.) The youngest is highly amused at Malala’s interest in famous cricketers.
While it is easy to see that Malala’s path to where she is now was full of struggles, and we are shown brief details of her extensive recovery process after the shooting, even those speaking with her in the film mention that she avoids discussing her past problems.
Instead, Malala is forward-looking and selfless. She is a beautiful, intelligent girl who realizes the opportunity she has been given to speak to the world about educating children, and she is seizing it in full.
Short glimpses of Malala’s mother (from whom Malala gets her looks) and her background are given as well, and we learn that she is just as supportive as but undeniably less brave than Malala’s father.
He sought her out for her beauty during his schooldays, while she was enraptured with his intelligence, and they married for love—a rarity.
The close bond between Malala and her father is reflected in their language when they speak about each other: it’s all glowing praise. With a stammer to his speech, Malala’s father could be seen as meek or incapable, but his obvious efforts to overcome every challenge thrown his way outweigh those possibilities.
Even with his speech impediment, he chose to become a teacher because “education gives you the power to question things, to be independent,” and it “was a threat to the (Taliban).”
Rather than seek other words when one proves difficult, Malala’s father perseveres in his attempts until he has successfully spoken his initially desired phrase.
He became a prolific public speaker against the oppressive Taliban rule, and Malala followed in his footsteps. But it was relieving to have Malala inform the audience that her life of activism was not forced on her: she says, “Dad didn’t push me; he let me do what I want. I knew the risk. … I am afraid of no one.”
The driving message in the movie and Malala’s philosophy is that “it is so hard to get things done in this world. You try and so often it doesn’t work, but you have to continue and never give up.”
Besides winning the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize and being credited for “(lighting) the candle of knowledge” for underprivileged girls worldwide, Malala still works to perpetuate the concept that “one child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.”
Seeing her story come alive on screen was a treasure and an experience I’m now craving to relive.
The film was just short of two hours, a perfect timeframe for weaving an intricate narrative about the brave Malala of legend and our Malala today, continuing the legacy of speaking out for what is right.
Hearing such a young, resilient advocate for education demonstrate complete selflessness was absolutely inspiring.
The selected excerpts from various of Malala’s speeches that were featured in the documentary conclusion, urging the audience to #StandWithMalala, were powerful: “We realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced.
Let us pick up our books and our pens; they are our most powerful weapons. … I tell my story not because it is unique, but because it is not.
I am Malala, but I am also those 66 million girls who are deprived of education. I am not one voice; I am many, and our voices have grown louder and louder.”