She arm-wrestles her little brother. She teaches her dad how to tweet. She giggles at the suggestion that she finds Roger Federer cute. She’s just an ordinary teenager. Who has become a potent feminist symbol around the world. Who is the youngest winner ever of the Nobel Peace Prize (in 2014). And all because she was shot in the head by a Taliban soldier for daring to publicly state that girls should be allowed to go to school. (Boy, did that backfire on those primitive idiots.) Working from her book I Am Malala, documentarian Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) introduces us to the young woman — she turned 18 this summer — behind the headlines and the photo ops. We already knew that Malala Yousafzai is ambitious, determined, and brave: her latest projects including traveling to Nigeria to campaign on behalf of the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram, and opening a school for Syrian refugee girls in Lebanon. But it turns out she is equally endearing, funny, and down-to-earth. She’s simply a nice, sweet, smart person, and a delight to spend time with here.
More importantly, He Named Me Malala fills in the details few of us who’ve only followed her on the news know about how she came to be the sort of person who risked her life — and almost paid with it — for what she believes in. Malala did not spring from a vacuum. Her parents are very liberal: her mom, Toor Pekai, never got much of an education (something Malala speaks about with sadness here) and wanted to ensure that her daughter would; her dad, Ziauddin, is a real rebel himself, an outspoken proponent of girls’ education, and he started the school that Malala was attending in Pakistan when she was shot. “Education gives you the power to question,” he says here, and he made sure his fiery passion had been passed on to his daughter. (She makes it perfectly plain that her father did not push her into publicly speaking up and putting herself in mortal danger from the Taliban, but that he merely allowed her to do what she wanted to do. She is nobody’s pawn.)
The story of why her father named her as he did opens the film, using gorgeous animation to explain the cultural and historical power of that name, which encapsulates everything Ziauddin hoped his daughter might become. As much as this is a charming film, it is also an important one with a vital message: How we raise kids matters. The title of film seemed odd to me before I saw it, but it makes a beautiful sort of sense about how change comes as new generations build on the work of those who came before them, and take up the torch that has been passed to them… and it’s up to us to decide what shape that torch takes.