The real coup of this year’s BFI London Film Festival is a Documentary special presentation of He Named Me Malala, an intimate portrait of the Nobel Peace Prize- winning teenage activist who, after standing up for her right to an education, was targeted by the Taliban and shot on the bus to school in Pakistan. As the world held their breath, Malala battled to survive the gunshot to the left side of her head, which drove tiny pieces of skull into her brain. Inspired by the autobiography I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, filmmaker Davis Guggenheim looks at the events leading up to the shooting, and the extraordinary repercussions on both the life of Malala and her family.
What Davis has managed to achieve with this remarkable film is to bring a story of real heroism within our lifetime to the big screen in an honest but accessible way. With this closeness to Malala, the cameras are seeing her world behind the eyes of the media to answer the question: Just who is Malala?
The gem of the documentary lies in the Title: He Named Me Malala. This is referring to her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, who named her ‘Malala’ after a brave woman within popular Afghanstan urban legend, who inspired the army in an attack by the British in 1880 with her words of encouragement, but was herself shot on the battlefield. A teacher, activist and political commentator in his own right, it is clear from his passion and beliefs where Malala’s strength is inherited; “If you keep silent,” says Ziauddin, “you lose the right to exist”. At another moment, you see his daughter confidently leading a lesson to other children on the reasons why Hitler rose to power.
We know that Malala is driven, intelligent and fiercely outspoken, but what we get to see in this documentary is the relationship with her family, as well as her friends both back in Pakistan and the UK (Malala cannot return to Pakistan due to death threats from the Taliban, and therefore is currently in Birmingham.) Immersed in her new life, we watch as Malala studies for her GCSEs, deflects questions about potential boyfriends (in one of the sweetest, stand-out scenes of the film) and talk about missing a home that she isn’t sure that she can return to. These moments pepper a film that highlights the public engagement schedule that she has to promote The Malala Fund, which works to secure girls' right to a minimum of 12 years of quality education, particularly in the global south.
“I am not just Malala” she states. "I am the girls who are still not in education, I am many.” What would you have been like if you had had a ‘normal’ life? One reporter asks her. “ If I had an ‘ordinary’ father, an ‘ordinary’ mother’, an ‘ordinary’ life...” Malala answered, “I would have two children now. You would be sitting across from Malala and her babies.” What this film attempts to examine is how this girl angered the Taliban, how she was already the strong, courageous child that we know today, before the shooting. The publicity from the event gave Malala a louder voice, but it was a voice that she already had. It serves to inspire, to teach, but most of all, to act upon.
You can watch the documentary as part of this year's BFI London Film Festival. See the programme here.