The premiere of Davis Guggenheim’s He Named Me Malala had a few false starts as it rolled out for a crowd of about 300 who waited in the rain to see it for the first time. The film is a tribute to Malala Yousafzai’s work but also to the work of her father and her father’s father, which brings with it some of the only controversy the subject has had to endure: did her father put her in harm’s way, is he using her for his own fame? No deed goes unpunished in this world, of course, as you will probably never encounter two more well-intentioned honorable people than Malala and her beloved father.
Many of us know Malala the symbol and not Malala the girl; as a icon, not as a typical teenager with annoying little brothers, homework and a mild but growing interest in boys. This film gives her admirers the chance to see the personal side of Malala, who recovered heroically from a devastating shot to the face from a militant Taliban gunman. Radical Islam is the enemy of educated girls — and boys. Thus her punishment for speaking out against religious oppression was brutal and nearly fatal. Her recovery isn’t the whole story, nor is the Taliban’s intent to murder her and her father. This isn’t a film about the telling of that past but a film about the telling of the future — her future — our future. Malala makes it abundantly clear that one student, one teacher, one lesson, one book can change the world.
All the same, there is a ray of humor that runs through the entire Yousafzai family, evidenced not only in Malala herself but in her brothers and father as well. Her mother doesn’t get near enough screen time — and sometimes it feels like she is not that involved in Malala’s activism. The film pays ample attention to her father who is both a source of security and comfort for her as well as providing some of her motivation and core beliefs. The film’s title, though, reminds us that he might have named her Malala, he might have steered her in the direction of activism, but to give him sole credit for her achievements would be to ignore the most important aspect of her many gifts.
He Named Me Malala is a film made not for masterpiece-hungry critics but rather for everyone else, particularly teachers and students who know that learning more about Malala can inspire us in immeasurable ways, perhaps most importantly in awaking American school children and their parents to the idea that education is to be prioritized, valued, and made more easily accessible.
The most remarkable thing about Malala is her enduring drive to educate herself. She is turned on by knowledge — science, history, politics. Her mind is hungry for more and her father helped instill in her an entitlement to that knowledge. How does the Taliban or any radical Islamic group plan to subvert this drive in the long term? They can’t. Not as long as there is a student, a teacher, a lesson, a book.
Guggenheim’s admiration for his subject is abundantly clear. This isn’t going to be a critical look at Malala — as if. There is an agenda here and one Guggenheim feels passionately about. His last film, Waiting for Superman, was about teachers and the broken public school system in the United States. He Named Me Malala stands in stark contrast because in a world where women are told they are good for nothing but being wives and having babies, and should know nothing but the study of religion, access to even the worst public schools here would be a gift to those who are threatened with death for even contemplating a less repressive life.
He Named Me Malala seemed at first like a strange choice to be the “secret screening” that kicks off the Telluride Film Festival but it moved this audience to tears and applause, which is more than most films in this slot usually do. When Ken Burns led the Q&A after the film, with Guggenheim, Malala’s father and Malala herself via remote, the reason for its position became abundantly clear. One must never forget Telluride’s roots. Pull up one of those roots and you’ll find a kernel of truth Ken Burns planted, a living tribute to the type of wisdom and insight he champions.