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What's in a Name? Courage and Strength, if Yours is Malala
February 29, 2016  | By Alex Strachan  | 8 comments

Ghostly shadows flicker across the screen. Colors flow and merge while, in another, later time, a small girl wakes in hospital from a coma. Malala Yousafzai, now a teenager, remembers having terrible dreams, she tells us in a slow, halting voiceover. She was 15 at the time. She had been an outspoken advocate for a girl’s right to an education ever since she was 11 and she started writing a blog for faraway BBC, under a pseudonym.  A grubby, disheveled nobody climbed aboard her school bus one morning in October, 2012, asked for her by name, then shot her in the head.

The word “miracle child” can be thrown around with reckless abandon at times, but there it is. In the days immediately following the attack she remained unconscious in hospital, in critical condition. But alive.

She regained consciousness, slowly at first. She was weak, but strong enough to be safely transfered to a state-of-the-art hospital in faraway Birmingham, England, for extensive rehabilitation. The rest, as they say, is history, or herstory if you prefer: the  2013 Sakharov Prize; a 2013 speech at the United Nations; a 2013 Time magazine citation as one of “The 100 Most Influential People in the World;” a special invitation to Forbes’ Under 30 Summit in 2014; a private meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama; the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, and so on.

That’s all background, of course — biographical detail that can be found just about anywhere there’s an Internet connection.

He Named Me Malala, Davis Guggenheim’s Oscar-shortlisted documentary that makes its TV debut Monday on National Geographic Channel, is more personal document than dry documentary. It’s a character study of an often-shy 18-year-old who’s older than her years but still remembers being an awkward, out-of-place teenager at Edgbaston High School in Birmingham, worlds away from her cultural upbringing in rural Pakistan. She cannot return to her homeland, she has been warned, because if she does the Taliban will kill her. Unceremoniously and without hesitation.

It’s all too easy to confuse a documentary film with its subject. It’s done all the time. A mediocre film is made about an important topic, and gets a free pass.

It’s important to point out — and I can’t stress this enough — that He Named Me Malala is one of those rare films that rises to the level of its subject. There’s more sheer artistry in the first 100 seconds of He Named Me Malala than there is in 100 entire documentaries with obvious, overbearing music and bullying, hectoring voiceover narration.

Guggenheim, whose past work includes the 2006 Oscar-winning enviro-call-to-arms An Inconvenient Truth

and 2010 Sundance Audience Award winner Waiting for Superman, has chosen to tell a tale about a small girl grown old before her time, a teenager who loves her mom and dad and tolerates her younger brother.

Guggenheim, (right with Yousafzai) soft-spoken and unassuming, with the uncanny ability to ask exactly the right question at the right time in the right way, focuses on Yousafzai’s home life, her struggle to fit in at school, her respect and love for her father, who she was terrified had been murdered. Her first words, according to the attending nurse, on waking from her coma after being shot, were, “Where’s my father?”

The attack itself gets a brief mention at the end, and no more. The frantic hospital procedures — and there were more than one — bookend the film, at the very beginning and very end. It’s the small, personal story that takes up most of the film, though, and it’s that story the viewer will never forget. He Named Me Malala just might be the most trenchant, unforgettable,, emotionally wrenching film you will see all year.

Those small human moments, played out at the breakfast table or in a school hallway among friends, unfold against a backdrop of pride, prejudice and political extremism.

Malala was named for a folk hero of 19th-century Afghanistan, Malalai of Malwand, “the Afghan Joan of Arc,” who slew her enemies and vanquished her foe at the Battle of Malwand in 1880. Malala’s father, a history buff and looming presence throughout He Named Me Malala, named his infant daughter Malala for courage and strength in the face of overwhelming odds. He was determined that his daughter be educated from a young age, for her own sake, even if many of his neighbors shot him dark looks and muttered about a girl’s place being in the fields, not school.

Guggenheim uses old-school, flowing animation to show the life of Malalai of Malwand, and the effect is transformative. It takes just five minutes to realize that one is in the presence of a heartfelt, genuine work of art and not a tired, done-by-rote documentary about A Very Important Subject.

The music — by the respected film composer Thomas Newman — has an ethereal, almost haunting quality. It wouldn’t bear mentioning, except that the music in documentary films is often so unremittingly awful — loud and lazy.

For all its artistry, though, and He Named Me Malala is a work of art in itself, Guggenheim’s film keeps coming back to the small girl at its heart.

“Who is that?” Guggenheim asks her playfully at one point, showing her pictures of Brad Pitt on an iPad.

“I have no idea,” she replies.

“I knew what a cat was,” she says at another point, poring over her school notes. “But not a cat burglar.”

“I miss my friends,” she admits at another point. “In this new school, it’s quite difficult. To be really honest, I don’t feel comfortable. My life is quite different from their lives . . . It’s different here. I’m not smart at all.”

Like many kids her age, she’s overwhelmed by homework.

“She’s not going to take any questions this morning,” a conference director tells an expectant media at one event. “Although she’s a profoundly influential world leader, she’s also doing her GCSE’s.”

“I think rock stars are lucky,” Yousafzai sighs at one point, after reading about a band being overrun by adoring fans.

“I want to go once,” she says at one point, recalling her abandoned home in Pakistan. “Just to see that house. Just once. Just look at it.”

She’s the girl who spoke out, Guggenheim remarks. And will be killed for speaking out.

“I chose this life,” Yousafzai says. “It was not forced upon me.”

Guggenheim wanted He Named Me Malala to be about the importance of light where others see only darkness, and he has succeeded. He Named Me Malala is one of the most powerful testaments to humanity ever recorded on film.

“My father only gave me the name Malala,” she says quietly, toward the end of the film. ”He didn’t make me Malala.”

He Named Me Malala makes its world television premiere Monday on National Geographic Channel at 8 p.m. ET.

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