Girl On Fire

Film-Lead-1542Teen’s courage profiled in powerful doc ‘He Named Me Malala’

The word “inspirational” is highly overused. It’s come to denote an entire sub-genre of books and movies, mostly devoted to Christian themes or underdog sports stories. But for real-life inspiration of jaw-dropping proportions, look no further than Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Pakistani schoolgirl who spoke out for the rights of girls to be educated, nearly paid with her life when she was shot in the face by the Taliban, and survived to continue her work on behalf of women’s rights around the globe. In 2014, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace—at age 17.

The amazing story-so-far of this incredibly poised young woman and her family is told in the moving, informative documentary He Named Me Malala. Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) chooses this title for a good reason: the “He” refers to Malala’s father, schoolteacher and activist Ziauddin Yousafzai, who is revealed to be an influence and inspiration for his daughter. But as Malala points out in the film, “He named me Malala, but he didn’t make me Malala.” Guggenheim’s film is the fascinating story of Malala inventing herself.

Let’s start with that name. In a voice-over, accompanied by lovely, animated pastel images (which are used throughout the film), Malala tells the story of her namesake, a legendary 19th Century heroine from Afghanistan called Malalai. When the Afghani troops were in flight from invading British forces, Malalai climbed a hill above the battlefield and rallied the troops, crying “It’s better to live one day as a lion than spend the rest of your life as a slave.” The Afghani troops turned and fought the invaders, but Malalai was shot and killed.

Although he couldn’t know how closely his daughter’s fate would mirror her namesake’s, Malala’s father gave her a name to inspire courage—which she would need as a girl in search of learning. As the Taliban chokehold tightened on the village of Swat, where the Yousafzai family lived, a fear-based society where education in general was suspect, and considered unnecessary (if not downright subversive) for girls, simply going to school was a radical action.

Despite Taliban intimidation (schools and police stations bombed; people shot; books, music and computers burned) Malala spoke out for the rights of girls to be educated, not only in her community, but also in a series of impassioned essays she posted to the blog of a BBC reporter that gained worldwide attention.

After the shooting, Malala and her parents and two brothers were removed to a new life in Birmingham, England. She now combines schoolwork, hanging out with her girlfriends, and teaching her dad how to Tweet, with visiting schoolgirls in Africa, greeting Syrian refugees at the Jordan border, addressing the U.N., appearing on The Daily Show, and meeting with President Obama and Queen Elizabeth of England. Warm and wryly humorous at home with her family, Malala’s belief in education never flags. “Let us pick up our books,” she advocates. “They are our most powerful weapons.”

While the Taliban is an extreme example, Guggenheim suggests how deeply the oppression of women is ingrained into cultural traditions. Men on the street (and at least one woman) back in Swat try to downplay Malala’s fame in the west and her message. In Britain, when her own kid brother is asked by the filmmaker what girls should do if they don’t go to school, he grins and shrugs, and says, “clean dishes and buy things for people.”

Malala wistfully tells the story of her own mother, whose enlightened father allowed her to go to the village school. But she felt so self-conscious as the only girl there, she sold her books for candy and never went back. Ziauddin Yousafzai shows us an embroidered family tree that goes back 300 years, but does not include the name of one single woman.

Asked who shot Malala, her father says, “It was not a person; it was an ideology.” Malala agrees that Taliban terrorism “is not about (Islamic) faith. It’s about power.” It’s her determination to speak truth to power that makes Malala’s story, as told in this quietly powerful film, such a genuine inspiration.


**** (out of four)

With Malala Yousafzai and Ziauddin Yousafzai. A film by Davis Guggenheim. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated PG. 95 minutes.

BOOKS OVER GUNS Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) profiles Malala Yousafzai’s brave stand against the Taliban for girls’ rights to education in ‘He Named Me Malala.’

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