Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager and education activist who survived a 2012 assassination attempt by a Taliban gunman, was already admired worldwide for her quietly defiant heroism by the time she won the Nobel Peace Prize two years later. Now filmmaker Davis Guggenheim has made an affectionate and moving portrait of Malala that also paints her as remarkably brave, poised, funny, articulate, smart, self-aware, resilient and curious.
In the animated prologue that opens “He Named Me Malala,” Guggenheim presents the story of Malala’s prophetic namesake, the legendary 19th-century Afghan warrior who martyred herself while rallying her fellow Pashtun troops against the invading British army. Throughout the film, such fablelike animation reappears, mixed in with standard, talking-head-style interviews and archival footage. Similarly sobering, hand-drawn images are used with particular effectiveness during the horrific discussion of Malala’s shooting on a school bus.
Targeted by the Taliban because of her outspoken advocacy of girls’ education — via a BBC blog she started contributing to at age 11 — Malala was shot in the head, resulting in partial facial paralysis and a destroyed eardrum. Yet she says she harbors no anger toward her assailant. Guggenheim’s portrait emphasizes, paradoxically, his subject’s ordinariness, even as it makes a case that she is anything but ordinary.
Scenes of Malala at home in Birmingham, England, where she and her family moved after the attack, show a fairly typical adolescent, teasing, and being teased by, two brothers. She also talks about the culture shock she has experienced in her adopted homeland, where girls her age obsess over boys and clothing in a way that is still foreign to a Muslim girl from the rural Swat Valley. If there’s a quibble with the film, it’s that it glosses over what it’s like to grow up in the glare of worldwide celebrity.
A strong theme of the film is the unusually close bond between Malala and her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai. Although he was the first to encourage her to speak out for girls’ education as a child — arguably putting his daughter at risk — she refuses to blame him for what happened to her.
It is when Malala talks about changing the world that you actually might start to believe that this kid, who is still only 18, could someday make a difference. Guggenheim is clearly in awe of her. By the end of “He Named Me Malala,” you may be, too.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains disturbing images and thematic material involving threats made against a child. 88 minutes.