The saying is: “Behind every good man is a good woman.” Yet in this documentary, “He Named Me Malala,” we learn that that the person behind the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, is her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, the man who named her Malala. Davis Guggenheim’s documentary uses vivid, impressionistic animation to recall the past while we follow Malala on her rehabilitation appointments, her speaking engagements and her volunteer work to promote the education of girls. “He Named Me Malala” pairs a visually lush past with an engaging contemporary family who has survived a great tragedy with great emotional strength.

Ziauddin has three children, but Malala is his only daughter. He named her after Malalai of Malwand. It’s worth knowing more about Malalai because it introduces two things: Britain and bravery. Malalai was born in 1861–the year the American Civil War started. Queen Victoria was on the throne, since 1837. The British were busy expanding their territories. Malalai rallied the local Pashtun fighters against the British troops during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880). Malalai was there as were other women, to provide water and tend to the wounded. She rallied the local Pashtun troops and according to the documentary she cried, “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 days as a slave.” The Pashtuns were victorious on that particular day in 1880.

Yet Afghanistan ended up becoming a British Protectorate with the tribal areas annexed to British India. It was a victory for Great Britain. Malalai’s defiance before her death on the battlefield was remembered

There are many places named after Malalai and perhaps many girls are named after her as well, but Ziaddin felt a particularly closeness to his daughter and he was an educator determined to educate his daughter.  The Yousafzai lived in the Swat Valley, a place of high mountains, green meadows and beautiful lakes that Queen Elizabeth II called the Switzerland of the east. This is a place that embraced Buddhism before Islam came.

According to the documentary, the pre-Taliban Islam was more accepting and gentler. Beginning with a radio personality, the slow influx of the Taliban started with a low key approach, gossipy news about who had been naughty.

In the meantime, Malala was growing up, her curiosity indulged by her father who ran a chain of schools. At 11, she becomes a blogger for the BBC (2008). By January of 2009, the Taliban had blown up schools and decreed that no girls could attend school.  Malala’s blog ended and her father had been threatened with death in 2009. Malala continued to speak out for girls education and her profile began to rise. She would be recognized by her country (with a National Yout Peace Prize in 2011)  and by the Taliban. She received death threats and in Oct. 2012, she was shot on a bus after taking an exam. Her friends Kainat Riaz and Shazia Ramzan were also shot, but their injuries were not critical. Malala was shot in the head.  After receiving medical treatment in Pakistan, she was taken to Birmingham, England.

If people didn’t know about Malala before, the shooting made her famous and thrust her into the international spotlight. When she was able, after coming out of a coma and rehab, she began speaking, then traveling and then reaching out to other communities across the globe.

“He Named Me Malala” reaches out to audiences and asks them to care about Malala, about Muslims, about Muslim girls and girls in general. It asks viewers to recognize how important a father can be to a daughter. More subtly it asks people to understand the difference between Muslims, that there is a deep, wide gap between what some Muslims believe and what fanatics like the Taliban attempt to enforce through terrorism.

Yet the movie also illustrates why there is are doubters, even Pakistanis who do not believe that Malala isn’t as important as some people make her to be. One thing the documentary doesn’t mention here is that Malala is sometimes seen as representing what the Europe and America want to see. There’s an irony that while Malalai asked her compatriots to rise against the British led troops, her namesake, Malala, has sought refuge in Great Britain and is receiving her education there. Perhaps we can see both the good and the bad of British Imperialism and the implicit problems of former colonies and protectorates moving forward in a wold where modernism and progress are often linked to former rulers and conquerors.

“He Named Me Malala” tells us we have choices about facing the past and the future. And that education for girls matters to us all. This is a different kind of family film, one that everyone should see, especially kids in schools. “He Name Me Malala” is currently playing at the ArcLight Hollywood and will open at the Laemmle Claremont 5 and the Arclight Pasadena on Oct. 9. For the location of the theater near you, visit the official website. 

 

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