My review of He Named Me Malala, a documentary about the life of survivor and social activist Malala Yousafzai.
Prior to watching the documentary, the only thing I knew about Malala was that she is a strong advocate of women’s right to an education after miraculously surviving a gunshot to the head. Obviously, that single detail I knew was more than enough to pique my interest. The documentary covers Malala’s life before the Taliban attacked her and after. We learn about her childhood, her parents and the roots of her love of education (planted and nurtured by her father). We see her actions and the events that culminated to the Taliban’s attack on her; and finally, we get to see her recovery, rehab and her life after the attack, as she chooses not to be a victim of persecution but instead to use her experiences to strengthen her fight for women’s education.
The story was presented in the perfect mix of two formats – through interviews with Malala, her family, friends and doctors and through animation. The animations gave the documentary a fairytale-like feel, which highlighted how unbelievable Malala’s life is. Through the animations (and voice overs), we learn that Malala was named after Malalai, a folk hero in an Afghan fable who inspired her people (Pashtun fighters) against the British invaders. As I was watching the animated retelling of the fable, I couldn’t help but see the similarities between Malalai and her namesake – both fighters for their people, both used their newfound voice as their strongest weapon and both shared a name. The coincidences are uncanny. Guggenheim also employed the use of animation when retelling parts of Malala and her parents’ early life. It reminded me of Persepolis and further made Malala seem less like a real person but more like just another hero in a legend. Her early life was so idealistic, her parents so adorable and her love for education starting from such a young age so unreal that – to me – the animations made Malala seem unreal too.
Cue: the interviews, footage and photos from her life.
All of the interviews, footage and photos from Malala’s life served as a reminder that she – and her experiences – are real. The interviews with her friends and family and the footage of news reports confirmed that yes, she really was shot in the head by the Taliban for her stance on women’s right to an education. The interviews with her doctors and photos of her rehab confirmed that yes, she really did survive the attack and almost completely recovered. The interviews with Malala herself and the footage of her speeches around the world confirmed that yes, she really did turn her horrible situation into a good opportunity to be a voice for the silent. It’s almost like the animation told us: “Look at how amazing this girl is” and the interviews and footage told us: “No seriously, look at how amazing this girl is“.
One of my favourite parts of the documentary was whenever we got a snapshot into Malala as a teenage girl and not an activist. The way she giggled when googling her celebrity crushes or the way she worried about whether the kids at school would like her really highlighted the fact that underneath the image she shows to the world, she is still a normal teenage girl who has crushes and friends and maths homework.
Finally, despite this documentary being about Malala and her life, it’s important not to forget her message and her goal. The fact that she was literally shot in the head for going to school is the perfect example of how lucky girls in Western countries are because of our freedom to be educated. A quote from the documentary that really stuck with me was:
They thought the bullet would silence us, but they failed. We realise the importance of our voices only when we are silenced. We realise the importance of light when we see darkness.
Because school is compulsory, it’s easy to forget the hardships girls (and boys) in other countries go through just to receive what we so easily access. I’m lucky enough to (probably, God willing) never be shot for my education or my views that women deserve to be educated, so I will never experience the “darkness” or “silence” that Malala and too many other girls experience. However, it’s through reading, seeing and learning about stories like Malala’s – and all the girls around the world who are persecuted for their desire to learn – that I can know about the darkness and silence that does exist. He Named Me Malala is a great source for everyone to start learning about these girls, which I believe everyone should do. Maybe after educating ourselves of problems that go further than what personally affects us, one day our voices might be loud enough for all women around the world to enjoy education without the persecution.