He Named Me Malala (2015)

He Named Me Malala is the emotional story of how one Pakistani girl embarked on a mission to insist on education for girls. Politics is a minefield I try to stay away from, but literacy is a cause that appeals to me if ever there was one.

A strong theme in the film (indeed, in the title!) is Malala’s relationship with her father. There will always be people who say that by giving his daughter the name “Malala” and involving her in his intellectual life, Malala’s father created the champion who is now beloved by the international media…. and that he is also, thus, responsible for making her the victim of a shot to the head by a Taliban gunman. Malala refuses to blame her father, describe herself as a special victim of the Taliban, or even admit to any personal feelings of anger or suffering related to the shooting. Moreover, she states clearly that whatever she has done has been her own choice. Of course we are nevertheless free to imagine her anger and suffering, and to reflect on the many reasons any of us follow the paths we do: nature, nurture, chance, and choice all have roles to play.

The film runs the gamut of emotions: we feel shock, anger, sadness, and awe, but interviews with Malala’s brothers provide comic relief, and some of the things Malala says about herself are pretty funny, too. The segments that present Malala’s “normal” family and student life remind us that she is not just a survivor, a heroine, and a champion of the oppressed: she’s a human girl, in some ways no different from you and me, yet she has accomplished more than most of us would ever dare attempt, and perhaps for good reason: most of us have a stronger sense of self-preservation, and most of us have not been shot in the head.

Though it seems to try to transcend politics, the film can’t entirely avoid being political. One of its messages is that the Taliban’s teachings are not Islam; it is a perversion of Islam, a radical, poisonous ideology subscribed to by power-hungry extremists. The film does not document their crimes in detail; unlike the shorter 2009 NYT documentary, it is not graphically violent and its tone is generally hopeful; the bad guys are not its focus. Malala’s father says it wasn’t a person who shot her; it was an ideology. Who pulled the trigger doesn’t matter.

This film included beautiful animated segments and features the voices of Malala and her father, who speak in admirable English that has some charming idiosyncrasies.

I was curious whether He Named Me Malala, being fact rather than fiction, would have the same structure as other movies I’ve watched and analyzed. Although it had a kind of collage aspect to it, its underlying structure was the same as that of any narrative. I was not surprised. Just because a documentary starts with facts doesn’t mean it’s not also a story. Even if it a story that in real life is far from over, or one that isn’t told in chronological order, every story has to have a recognizable beginning, middle, and end.

I didn’t know much, if anything, about Malala before seeing the film. Now, having seen it, I am at least somewhat curious to read the book I Am Malala, a copy of which, hilariously, Malala signed and inscribed to herself before shelving it alongside others in her bedroom.


See below for some links to reviews as well as a summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

My beat sheet for He Named Me Malala

I watched the film and then wrote the summary a few days later. The titles from the soundtrack helped me recall the content.

Prologue (“A Pashtun Story”)
Long ago in Kazakhstan, a teen girl named Malalai was killed after she rallied troops to defend the country from the English.

Opening image (“I am Malala”)
Shooting and aftermath: Malala is in a hospital wrapped in bandages after being shot in the head. She asks about her father.

Set-up (“Which Camera Now?” / “July 12”)
Present day: Despite her young age, Malala is a prominent public figure who speaks out about education for girls. She and her family live in England. Malala cannot go home because if she does, the Taliban will kill her. That would be sad, especially for her father, to whom she has been like a soul-mate since the day she was born (July 12).

Catalyst / Debate / Break into Two (“Ideology”)
Before the shooting: When the Taliban first arrived in Swat Valley, the Taliban leader seemed nice.
Present day: Malala describes how she and two other girls were injured by bullets. She claims she’s not angry about having been shot.

Promise of the Premise / B Story (“Headmaster”, “Old Life New Life” “Bonfires” “Cat Burglar”, “School v. Celebrity”, “Courtship”, “Birmingham”)
Before the shooting: Malala’s father founded his own school. Malala took to education like a fish takes to water. Later, when the Taliban’s power had increased, objectionable materials and objects such as televisions were burned in bonfires.
Present Day: Malala, in the UK, is trying to increase her vocabulary by teaching herself phrases like “cat burglar”. People are envious of her because she is a celebrity, but because she is also a high-school student, she still has to do homework. If she lived a “traditional” Pakistani life, she wouldn’t be a celebrity, and she wouldn’t even be a high-school student; she would be the mother of three children.

Midpoint (“Radio Mullah”)
Before the shooting: Gaining in power, the Taliban scolded dissenters by name publicly over the radio, then started blowing up police stations and killing those who opposed them.

Bad Guys Close In (“A Fiery Speaker”, “Night”, “Candies for Books”)
Before the shooting: Malala’s father, who suffers from a stutter, is nevertheless a passionate public speaker. He modelled himself on his own father, an admired community leader. When he started speaking out against the Taliban because his conscience would not let him remain silent, Malala feared for her father, especially at night. She would check all the gates and doors of the house to be sure nobody could come in. International journalists tried to report on the situation in Swat Valley, but nobody wanted to help them, so Malala (at the age of 11!) started sending daily reports to a BBC correspondent who published them online under a different name. As a child, Malala’s mother started school but because she was the only female there, she quit and traded her books for candies, and no one thought to stop her.

All Is Lost (“No More There”)
Before the shooting: To enforce an edict that girls should not be educated, the Taliban started blowing up schools.

Dark Night of the Soul (“Peace Prize”)
Present day: Malala is passed over for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.

Break into Three (“Refugees”, “The Women”, “Risk”, “Speak What Is in Your Soul”)
Before the shooting: The government sent troops into Swat Valley; citizens left, becoming refugees.
Present day: Malala campaigns for girls’ right to education around the world.
Before the shooting: Malala’s father gave her the opportunity to speak publicly, like her namesake Malalai, and she took it. Surely the Taliban would not kill a child?

Finale (“Grievous Injury”, “66 Million Girls”)
Shooting and aftermath: Malala is shot by a Taliban gunman while riding in a school bus. She is taken to a hospital for surgery, but the problem isn’t quite solved, so doctors decide to send her for more surgery. Nobody knows if she will live, or what disabilities she might have, or whether she will be the same person at all. As we have seen, despite being shot, she is still the same Malala in spirit, and has chosen to carry on the fight. She has never blamed her father, she has only been worried for his life. We are back to where we started the film.

Final image (“The Same Malala”)
Present day: Malala, on her 16th birthday, barely recovered from her injury, gives a speech at the United Nations about the importance of educating women. “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.”

Epilogue (“Who Really I Am”)
Present day: Having been nominated but passed over for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, Malala (alongside Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian children’s rights activist) is awarded the prize in 2014 at the age of 17.

Reviews of He Named Me Malala

Freep says fact is stranger than fiction: “Malala’s story is so incredible that had this not been a true story, it would have been branded as a script too improbable to work. Even her name sounds like a forced story line.”

AZCentral pinpoints the heart of the film: “What kind of father lets his daughter go to school after she has been besieged by death threats? What kind of father allows his daughter to willingly walk in harm’s way for a cause? The best kind of father, it turns out. Their singular relationship is the beating heart of this intimate documentary about the youngest-ever Nobel laureate.”

The New York Times says the film could have gone deeper: “The film is primarily interested in spreading her message and seems pitched to a young audience. Nothing wrong with that. But it only occasionally delivers the kind of unguarded moment that makes you feel as if you’re getting beneath the media image, and it is not at all interested in discussing broader issues raised by Ms. Yousafzai’s fame.”

Roger Ebert expresses the same sentiment more strongly: “At one point toward the film’s end, we hear Guggenheim ask off-camera about Yousafzai’s reluctance to talk about her suffering. She rejects this line of questioning, pleasantly but firmly. And that’s that. Similarly, he touches on the notion of Yousafzai’s fellow Pakistanis denouncing and questioning her for her progressive stances, but he quickly leaves that complicated topic. In the place of such much-needed substance, we get filler in the form of wispy, pastel-colored animated segments.”

Variety says the story is new but the methods used in telling it are not: “Viewers familiar with Guggenheim’s documentaries An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman may pick up some nagging similarities here: the reliance on visual aids; the focus on a serious issue in ways both sobering and uplifting; a nagging sense of emotional calculation verging on manipulation.”

The Telegraph says yes, we’re being manipulated, but at least it’s for a good cause: “These [storybook animation, coddling music] are crude tactics, but the personality they uncover is something to be protected and cherished. At times, He Named Me Malala may feel more like a rousing campaign video than a film with its own distinctive point of view, but the validity of her vital crusade – and by extension, the film’s practically short-circuit appeal to your heart and gut – is tough to argue with.”

A Schoolgirl’s Odyssey (2009)

The New York Times has an earlier, shorter, bleaker documentary featuring Malala. It’s called A Schoolgirl’s Odyssey.

Malala, a controversial figure in Pakistan

Foreign Policy says: “Malala personifies what is admirable about Pakistan and its people: youth, resilience, bravery, and patriotism. But her story also holds up a mirror to the country’s dark side, not just in terms of terrorism, misogyny, and conspiracy-mongering, but also its deep class divides and the sharply divergent worldviews generated by such fissures.”