Sharp silence cutting through credit music in a darkened theater is an indicator that a director has successfully made his or her point. A movie is truly good—specifically in the non-fiction realm—when it stays with you long after you leave the room’s cushioned seats, crushed popcorn and soda-sticky floors behind. Scattered scenes from the prior hours replay in the back of your mind not necessarily because of how skillfully and cinematically the moments were captured, but because of how raw the moments were themselves. Moments that give reason to create a film quite as necessary as He Named Me Malala.
By now, Malala Yousafzai’s story is a widely known one. When she was 15, the Taliban shot her in the forehead for being a rather outspoken advocate for girls’ education. Three years of recovery, an international move (her family relocated to Birmingham, England due to continued threats from the Taliban) and a Nobel Peace Prize later, Malala has not lost steam on her fight for young girls to have access to a full 12 years of education. He Named Me Malala—directed by Davis Guggenheim and executive produced by Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald and Guggenheim—was able to paint a fuller portrait of the little girl who left Pakistan’s Swat Valley as a victim of attempted murder and became a global icon for bravery, perseverance and educational rights.
“I think when you’re making a movie about someone people think they know already, they bring with it the baggage of what they know. I think I was that person,” Guggenheim said during a press brunch. “I knew her as a girl who was shot on her school bus, and that’s not who she is. I think that the movie leads to this. Characters are defined by the choices they make, and Malala makes this very brave choice to speak out for what she believes, and her father makes the choice to let her. So, she’s really in my mind not a hero because she was shot on her school bus. In fact, that’s the opposite of how you should know her. You should know her for a courageous girl who thought that her voice mattered and was courageous enough to speak out.”
Along with clarifying the image we see of now 18-year-old Malala, the film provided tangible life lessons that all viewers can walk away with after seeing her story. Here are five that we simply couldn’t shake from our spirits after seeing He Named Me Malala.
Coincidence is just confirmation of a greater life plan, and Malala’s very being is proof of this just by virtue of her name. The name Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, chose for her wound up being a prophecy of sorts. She was named after Malalai of Maiwand, a Pashtun girl turned heroine after dying during a selfless act. Malalai journeyed to the battlefield where Pashtuns in Afghanistan were battling against British colonialists. She saw her people losing morale, so she grabbed a flag, stood on a mountaintop and shouted words of faith and encouragement. Soon after, she was struck down by bullets.
He chose that name for his daughter—whose name was the first woman’s to be written into the family tree—to remind her of the power she could have as a woman. At first, Ziauddin was urged to change Malala’s name because the name meant “sad,” but to him, it meant bravery. The parallels between Malalai and Malala’s stories are jarring, with the only big difference being that Malala survived. Now, she is charged to fulfill what she believes she was spared to do. “I’m hopeful that this name will become a symbol of the fight for rights and for education,” Malala said in a press release. “It’s not just the name of one girl. It’s a name that now symbolizes girls speaking out.”
When you take a good look at Malala, you’ll soon realize she is equal parts of both her parents. Both of them have contributed key elements in her spiritual and moral make-up that have prepared her for the lifelong task she has chosen. From her mother, Toor Pekai, she inherited a deep moral soundness, discipline and honor for the religion that guides her steps. From her father, she gets the fire and conviction that makes her such a stirring orator when she speaks up and out for educational rights.
The movie explores how much Ziauddin admired the vigorously with which his own elders told stories, and how he eventually overcame his noticeable stutter and apprehension for public speaking. In his adulthood, he would blast the controlling teachings of Fazlullah (aka Radio Mullah), who lead the extremist Taliban group that took over Swat Valley. He was threatened and targeted, and some of his fellow outspoken friends were shot and killed. Regardless, he continued to speak out fearlessly. As we can clearly see, Malala inherited this same flame.
What’s perhaps the most alarming and enlightening thing about Malala and her story is how positive she has remained throughout the entire situation. From the day the bullet shattered the left side of her forehead to this very day, there are no remnants of hatred within her body towards the attackers. The emotion is also absent from her family members, who cried and prayed heavily for her recovery. When asked who specifically shot his daughter, Ziauddin Yousafzai simply said, “It wasn’t a person, it was an ideology.”
Forgiveness was the only option they saw. “This idea of forgiveness is so deeply ingrained in the best aspects of that religion,” MacDonald said. After the shooting, Toor Pekai prayed for the mothers of the boys who shot her daughter. “There’s forgiveness and then there’s forgiveness,” said Guggenheim. “There’s a thing the teacher tells me what to do, and there’s a thing that we know. And I’m telling you, this is not a family that lives in bitterness or resentment.” Instead of harboring negativity, Malala used the miraculous moment as fuel to power her global movement fearlessly. “They thought that the bullet would silence us,” she said firmly during a United Nations address. “But nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.”
Watching this film opens your eyes to the little privileges the Western world has and doesn’t think twice about, especially the freedom to go to school as we please for as many years as we can afford. Imagine all the American youths who cut classes because they simply cannot be bothered that day, while young women in Swat Valley and other places beg and fight against extreme regimes to safely sit in a classroom. It’s numbing to think about.
Additionally, for safety reasons the Yousafzai’s were plucked from their cozy Swat Valley home and had to set up shop in Birmingham, England nearly 4,000 miles away. Many will see the relocation as an upgrade, but the family was heartbroken to leave behind a hometown they saw as a lush oasis more than a warzone. “She would give everything up to go back home,” MacDonald said. “She deeply misses her home, you know. This is all fancy and interesting but you know, that was a beautiful life. This wasn’t someone escaping from hell, you know, in her early life. And she has a deep connection to that place, and she can’t go back to it.”
The charm of this film is its impressive balance between the heavy and the light. Malala’s name comes with a certain weight to it. It equates to triumph, courage and purpose. But at her core, she’s just an everyday teenager with a new home, a family she adores and an education to chase. No matter how many public appearances she makes or young girls she visits, Malala always comes running back to the books and a close to normal life. She play-fights with her two witty younger brothers, Khushal and Atal. She has chores to help her parents with. Her favorite book in her vast bookshelf is Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist.” She blushes and giggles at the talk of attractive men. “You meet Malala, and you’re finding a girl who not only fulfills the expectations of the myth, but is sort of even more human than you would imagine,” Walter Parkes said. “She really does care about her schoolwork more than anything.” Laurie MacDonald agreed immediately. “She does,” she said. “[It’s] much more important to her than any of this.”