I don’t quite subscribe to the theory – promoted by some in Pakistan – that Malala Yousafzai is a “CIA Agent” but I have always been a cynic when it comes to the youngest-ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
It’s probably because I’m often cynical about people who have abilities that appear to be beyond my admittedly “normal” comprehension of the world and the human condition.
A 17-year-old isn’t supposed to have the poise and oratory skills required to stand up at the UN General Assembly and inspire the world nor indeed the confidence to breeze through TV talk shows; a 16-year-old isn’t supposed to have the wisdom, faith and inner peace to forgive the man who sprayed 7.62mm’s at her just because she had the cheek to go to school.
Those are just two small examples. The list goes on.
There is something esoteric and otherworldly about her and that is scary for mortals like me.
But what is even more staggering is the fact that what Malala is and what she has become was prophesied – as revealed by a new documentary on her life.
Directed by Oscar-winner Davis Guggenheim (‘An Inconvenient Truth’), ‘He Named Me Malala’ refers to a decision by Malala’s father Ziauddin to name her after a 19th Century Pashtun heroine named Malalai of Maiwand.
Widely revered in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan and known as ‘The Afghan Joan of Arc’, Malalai inspired and rallied Pashtun tribesmen against British forces during the Battle of Maiwand in 1880. She died in her late teens with some historians claiming that she was killed for being “too outspoken”.
Whilst ‘Malalai’ is a popular choice as a name for girls in the region no one has embodied it quite as much as Malala Yousafzai of Mingora, northwest Pakistan.
‘He Named Me Malala’ begins in October 2012 when a thug entered the school bus Malala was travelling in, asked her to identify herself and then shot her at point blank range.
Weeks earlier the Pakistan Taliban had held a “high level meeting” where it was agreed that the then-15-year-old should be killed after threats against her and her family had failed to stop Malala from speaking out against the closure of schools and denial of education to girls in areas controlled by these modern day barbarians.
Guggenheim, who spent nearly two years with the Yousafzai family while making the film, takes a non-linear approach with Malala’s story, trekking back to the days when the family were forced to flee their homes when the Taliban took control of the picturesque mountains and valleys of Swat to life in Birmingham where Malala was flown for specialist treatment and where the family now lives.
In between we are taken to places as far afield as New York – where Malala addresses the UN and does endless TV appearances – and Jordan – where she visits a refugee camp and speaks to survivors of the conflict in Syria.
Along the way, Guggenheim reveals a Malala that is rarely seen.
A startlingly ordinary young girl with the most open laugh; a shy girl who teases endlessly her adoring little brothers; a studious girl who treasures her books and struggles to adjust to her new all-girls school; frets over her grades and blushes crimson when asked about Roger Federer; a girl who has lost some hearing in her left ear and whose face is still partially paralyzed as a result of the attack but speaks movingly about forgiging the men who chose to shoot at a schoolgirl.
And a girl who adores and idolizes her father.
Ziauddin Yousafzai was a respected campaigner in Mingora long before Malala came to the world’s attention – a fiery orator who overcame a speech impediment to plead for equality, justice and basic rights.
Malala is clearly influenced a great deal by her father who accompanies her everywhere.
As a filmmaker, Guggenheim’s tackled a lot of topics in his time – from climate change and rock music to Barack Obama.
But he admits that nothing has had as much of an impact on him personally and professionally as Malala Yousafzai.
And it shows.
The best thing about ‘He Named Me Malala’ is its very light touch – despite the enormity of what Malala has endured and many other girls like her continue to endure.
Guggenheim is also balanced in providing sufficient time to those who despise Malala – who, ironically, help put to rest the various conspiracy theories that suggest she’s an agent of the ISI, the CIA, some say even a masterclass in reverse psychology by the Pakistani Taliban.
It is also educational in that it provides a surfeit of information about Malala’s background and the politics of the Taliban which prompted Malala and her father to take up activism long before she had a bullet pass through the left side of her face.
Aside from Ziauddin, Guggenheim also provides space for the innumerable characters in Malala’s life – not least her friends from Swat and, perhaps most importantly, her mother, a taciturn woman who provides the unwavering spiritual strength that enables Malala and her father the courage to try and change the world.
Ultimately, ‘He Named Me Malala’ is an illuminating, powerful and deeply poignant human story about an ordinary girl with extraordinary resolve.
A truly inspirational story and a gentle reprimand to us cynics, reminding us all that it doesn’t take much to care about the world.