Home Arts Malala’s historical heroism is hitting the big screen

Malala’s historical heroism is hitting the big screen

by Bashir Rifai October 13, 2015
Malala’s historical heroism is hitting the big screen

A documentary follows the human rights activist and champion of female education

Meet Malala Yousafzai—a Pakistani teenager who was targeted by the Taliban for speaking out in favour of education for girls, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and a present-day symbol for heroism, human rights activism, and courage. He Named Me Malala is a 2015 documentary film directed by Davis Guggenheim that chronicles the life of the young woman who was shot in the head by the Taliban and left for dead on her way to school. Yousafzai survived and rose to prominence as a human rights activist, with a focus on female education.

Malala Yousafzai—A Nobel Peace Prize winner and an inspirational fighter and advocator for female education.

Malala Yousafzai—A Nobel Peace Prize winner and an inspirational fighter and advocator for female education.

The documentary starts with an animated sequence telling the story of Malalai of Maiwand, a young Afghani girl who rallied local fighters against British troops in the Battle of Maiwand in 1880. Around the same age as Malala, who is now eighteen, she was shot and killed by the British. Though she was killed, the inspiring words she imparted onto the Afghan troops led them to a victory against the British army.

Malala, who was named after the heroine, was inspired by a phrase uttered by Malalai that has lived on in Afghan culture: “it is better to live like a lion for one day than [to] live like a slave for a hundred years.”

The documentary is structured in a peculiar yet effective way as it does not follow a linear storyline to document Malala’s life. Different scenes from her and her family’s life are interspersed throughout the film with the central theme that revolves around Malala’s relationship with her father, hence the title.

Her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, is an influential figure in Malala’s life. An activist himself who spoke out publicly against the Taliban, Malala’s father started a school in Swat Valley with only US$50 where only three students attended on the first day. Animated sequences show Malala growing up in that school, which later had a considerable number of female students registered. She grew up in an educational environment, where she play-lectured to empty classrooms as a child—as she put it, “school was my home.”

Malala’s father encouraged her to think independently, to challenge and question authority and ultimately he chose not to stand in her way as she took on the Taliban when they banned girls from attending school.

First, she wrote an anonymous blog for the BBC about life under Taliban rule and then, as the Taliban gained power, Malala found her anonymous blog to be insufficient in the fight against their rule. She started speaking publicly, naming names and grabbed the attention of the Taliban. Those who spoke out were punished, usually by death, and as she gained more public attention, the Taliban targeted her. As she was going to school one day, militants boarded the bus she was on and attacked her. The attack that left her fighting for her life gained global attention. Malala used this and channeled it into activism on issues ranging from female education and the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria, to the child refugee crisis that has resulted from the Syrian Civil War.

Her relationship with her mother on the other hand is not focused on in the film. Perhaps this was on purpose, as Malala’s mother, Tor Pekai Yousafzai, abandoned her education at an early age. Being the only girl in school, Malala’s mother chose to leave and join the other girls her age who spent their days playing in the fields.

In contrast to what Malala stands for, her mother is portrayed in the documentary as somewhat weak, lacking in opinion and struggling to fit in her new environment in England, although she is trying to mend this by taking English lessons.

Other than her relationship with her father, another interesting aspect of this documentary is that it shows Malala as a normal teenage girl. In their current home in Birmingham, England, the director shows her day-to-day life with her father, mother and two younger brothers.

Whether it is her brothers complaining that, though she is an internationally renowned activist, Malala can sometimes be “a bit naughty,” or the fact that she blushes when asked about boys in school,  her love of cricket, exam stress and so on. In spite of her heroism she is humanized as a young woman. She does meet important political figures and celebrities, but behind the scenes she is as normal as any other girl her age. “Rock stars don’t do homework,” she said, “they are lucky.”

The Concordian took part in a joint phone interview with the director, Davis Guggenheim. An accomplished documentary maker and producer, he is the mind behind An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for “Superman,” both of which currently sit on box-office reporting website, Box Office Mojo’s list of top 100 highest-grossing documentaries of all time.

Guggenheim discussed why he highlighted Malala’s relationship with her father—to challenge those who question whether she is an independent thinker or whether she was a construct of her father’s ideals. He also spoke of the strong relationship his family formed with the Yousafzais, along with his decision to use animation to show parts of Malala’s life as he felt the stories told to him by Malala and her father had a “storybook feel.”

He also spoke about why the Yousafzais inspired him, the fact that they “don’t live in fear,” and his view that “characters are defined by the choices they make.” He touched upon the importance of education, mentioning the fact that Malala’s father was at one point inspired by extremist ideology—the notion that he could have been an ISIS or Taliban fighter—until he learned through his education about the value of human rights.

When asked about the influence his film would have on audiences’ views of Islam and Muslim communities, the director said images from the Islamic world tend to have a narrow and negative narrative. It was his intention to start a different narrative by highlighting Malala’s achievements, he said. He also noted that at one of the screenings, he was thanked by Muslim college students for making this movie.

This is not surprising as Muslim communities are often portrayed in a negative light by a large portion of the Western world, such as in mainstream media. It is therefore tempting for some to paint Malala as a Muslim hero, which this film does not. True to the director’s statement, Malala is portrayed as a hero who happens to be Muslim, not a Muslim hero. This important distinction highlights the point that each individual practices their faith—or lack thereof—differently. It combats the narrow view that the 1.6 billion people who practice Islam can be simplified into a single entity.

The film appropriately concludes with scenes from Malala’s speech at the United Nations Youth Assembly, best exemplifying what she stands for and her immeasurable impact on the world with the line, “one child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.”

Running Time: 1h 27m
Director: Davis Guggenheim

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