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He Named Me Malala Features the Progressive Muslim Voice the West Has Been Looking For

<i>He Named Me Malala</i> Features the Progressive Muslim Voice the West Has Been Looking For

DVD Release Date: December 15, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: October 2, 2015 (limited); October 9 (wide)
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements involving disturbing images and threats)
Genre: Documentary
Run Time: 90 minutes
Director: Davis Guggenheim
Cast: Malala Yousafzai, Ziauddin Yousafzai, Toor Pekai Yousafzai, Khushal Yousafzai, Atal Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai is a young woman of destiny. Though acclaimed and admired worldwide, she’s not a household name just yet. But if her first 18 years of life are any indication then it’s only a matter of time before she is – not only as a global figure, but even more so as an historical one. She has the near-lethal scars to justify it, along with a Nobel Peace Prize for good measure.

As a young teenage girl in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai began to speak out against the Taliban regime that had overtaken her rural township and banned girls from schools. This demure, barely pubescent Malala waged a public crusade – in front of large crowds and television cameras – against this ban. By the time she was 15, Malala’s voice had become so influential that the Taliban put out an assassination attempt on her life – and nearly succeeded.

The bullet penetrated the left side of her brain, leaving Malala holding on for dear life. But she survived. And now, from her family’s exile in Great Britain, she remains a Muslim voice against radical Islam. He Named Me Malala is her story. It’s a documentary that will keep viewers’ emotions right at the surface, not so much for the heaviness of its subject matter but rather the inspiration of this young woman – this girl – in the midst of it.

For anyone who believes in the power of names – that the meaning of names actually mean something, even seal something in a person from birth –  documentarian Davis Guggenheim (Waiting For Superman) plays to that sense of destiny from the outset. He opens the film with the true-life account of the Afghan woman whom Malala was named after. Once you hear the tale, you can’t help but feel that, with her name, Malala’s fate was irrevocably set. She was on a course toward greatness, but at the hands of violence.

Guggenheim reveals this destiny in such a personal way that He Named Me Malala plays less like a documentary and more like a cinematic memoir (which is fitting, as Yousafzai’s book “I Am Malala” – which has been banned in Pakistani schools – serves as a blueprint). Malala herself tells the story here, in both interview sound-bites and narrative voice-over, enhanced by sequences of beautifully textured animation, along with added perspectives from her family, most keenly from her father Ziauddin.

Malala is a fascinating contradiction. On one hand, she’s an articulate voice of fearless moral clarity, well beyond her years, that goes from meeting world leaders and rock stars and royalty…to doing her homework. She goes from inspiring women and defying the Taliban to teasing her brothers and crushing on hot celebrities. She’s just a normal, giggling, self-conscious girl who also has the unrestrainable courage to put her life on the line, even as she expresses sincere forgiveness towards her assassins. She is driven by justice, not anger. To say she’s a role model for young women is both accurate and insufficient; she’s a role model for us all. And along with her father, Malala is the progressive Muslim voice that the West has been looking for.

Many Americans ask, “Where are the moderate Muslims who will speak out against the radical ones?” We need look no farther than Malala Yousafzai and her father Ziauddin. In fact, placing the “He” in the film’s title appears very intentional as Ziauddin is vital to who Malala has become. Not only did he name her, but it’s his own public outspokenness against radicals, combined with his passion for education, that Malala has followed, emulated, and now transcended. She is her father’s daughter in every respect and, as much as anything else, this is a powerful father/daughter story. “We became dependent upon each other,” Ziauddin says, “like one soul in two bodies.”

At one point Malala states, “I tell my story – not because I’m unique, but because I am not.” That declaration is both tragically true and a humble understatement. Malala Yousafzai does represent so many girls who are trapped, suppressed, and abused by radical Islamists, but she’s also unique among them with her gift to give them a global voice. In that, she bears comparison to previous icons like Martin Luther King, Jr, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi. Only time will tell if she joins their historical ranks, but given how her young life has already mirrored theirs in many ways – from the impact of her civil activism to an assassination attempt – it seems her influence will only continue to grow, to inspire, and to affect change. Even if it costs her her life.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  None.
  • Language/Profanity: None.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: None.
  • Violence/Other: Footage of bombings and violence perpetrated by the Taliban. The film is more thematically disturbing than it is visually, although it does include photos of the bloody bus seats on which Malala and other girls were shot, as well as separate footage of dead bodies in the streets. Frequent references to and discussions of violence against women and children. Public book burnings. Also, while not offensive, there are moments of Malala’s family praying at a Mosque, as they are practicing Muslims.

Publication date: October 1, 2015