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.