We have it beyond easy here in the U.S. Even some of the more ridiculous or backward things we still do are much more permissive and progressive than a lot of places in the world. Case in point: Pakistan, where the Taliban-controlled townships don’t allow women and girls the opportunity to go to school, resorting to violence, demolition, and murder to make sure something as egregious as a female getting educated will never happen.
This is why it warms the heart and galvanizes the soul to see someone like Malala Yousafzai, who is just now 18 years old, giving impassioned speeches and demonstrating on the subject of the right for women to learn. And she has suffered because of it. Her incredible story is depicted in the new documentary, He Named Me Malala.
The film by documentarian Davis Guggenheim, director of An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for ‘Superman’, follows Malala and her family around in their new home in Birmingham, England. It explores what Malala, who at the time was only 16 at the time, does in her day-to-day life, from how she goes to school in a country that isn’t her own to how she tries to get classwork done while being an internationally recognized activist. The juxtaposition is very endearing as we see her getting average or below-average grades because she missed a lesson, despite being at the top of her class in Pakistan before she was banned from receiving an education. She was shot in the head by a Taliban supporter after the local cleric called for her to be attacked. She didn’t die, obviously, but it took quite a lot for her to regain motor function. But Malala doesn’t like talking about that.
Much of the film, as the title might suggest, deals with Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, an outspoken educator who encouraged his daughter to speak out in their native country about the right for women to receive schooling. It’s clear he couldn’t be prouder of his daughter, but also clearly harbors some guilt about what happened to her. We also get several animated segments that show the legend of the freedom fighter known as Malala, for whom the subject of the documentary was named, Ziauddin’s upbringing, how he became a great speaker despite a pronounced stutter, and the horrible events surrounding the shooting.
It’s hard to say whether or not the documentary itself was done the best way it could have been, partly because the subject is so fascinating and relatable. The film certainly plays upon the audience’s sympathies and outrage, which is something Guggenheim’s films do quite frequently. He shows us things and people to make us want to take action — a pretty rare talent. And here he’s certainly attempting to be both artful in presentation and heavy on issues. Luckily, he happens to have such an endlessly watchable and listenable subject, so we can forgive much of the didactic elements because of the human ones.
Maybe it’s a puff piece, maybe it’s a hard-hitting expose about the hardship of women in far more patriarchal societies, or maybe it’s both. He Named Me Malala will certainly make you think while making you smile, and that’s something any film can aspire to.
4 out of 5 burritos
Image: Fox Searchlight
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!