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‘Malala’ is a true 21st century heroine

It seems to me that if you are not just a little bit flabbergasted by Malala Yousafzai, your capacity for awe is about a quart low. You’re missing an awful lot that’s great about our very species.

Davis Guggenheim, the director of “He Named Me Malala” obviously is flabbergasted. So, to be honest, am I. I was before I saw his documentary portrait of the now-18 year-old woman and I’m doubly so now.

Here is a woman who became, at 17, the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. At 15, she was on a school bus when a Taliban gunman shot her three times in the head but, somehow, didn’t kill her. The reason she won the prize is that she had been standing up to the Taliban in her Pakistani valley since she was 11. She’d been militating against their occupation and their fundamentalist conviction that young girls should not be educated.

Her survival after being shot made her cause that much greater – and sent her world fame and reputation through all known international roofs. Universal education became her “cause” and made her, for all intents and purposes in the 21st century, a symbol of civilization in a world that is being increasingly overrun by medieval fundamentalism and the astonishing growth of ignorance everywhere.

To say that Malala is inspiring and extraordinary is about as insightful as saying the sun is hot.

And yet, in the name of full journalistic disclosure, anyone seeking movie guidance on the Rotten Tomatoes website about this film will find critics all over the place whose “gasts” were not “flabbered” in the slightest – critics who don’t think Guggenheim asked her provocative enough questions or probed her psychology deeply enough.

“He Named Me Malala” is a superficial portrait, they say, as if we somehow, after just a few minutes, were supposed to take for granted the miracle that is Malala – just shove it over to the side and say “yes, yes, yes, of course” and then get to the “real” business of psychology and skepticism about the human enterprise that indicates all intelligence.

Why, we might ask, didn’t Guggenheim make more of the simple fact that Malala’s cause – universal education, regardless of gender – serves the Yousafzai family business, which has been, for generations, schooling? Isn’t that, you know, SUSPECT? Huh, huh?

It is, at this point, where you may conclude that a lot of the more knee-jerk journalistic responses of people who present as critics are so far out to lunch that real nourishment may not be possible for them. The story Guggenheim is telling is astonishing enough – the fact, for instance, that her father, as the very film tells us, named her after a 19th century martyr, a woman in Afghanistan sometimes called “the Afghan Joan of Arc.”

The survivor of the Taliban’s attempted murder, in one moment, will tell you that “it doesn’t matter that the left side of my face isn’t working” and in another moment how much she liked the movie “Despicable Me.”

That this apostle of education for all can be seen telling that to the General Assembly of the United Nations doesn’t stop her from getting a 73 on a history test and a 61 in physics.

That she’ll tell off President Obama for the use of drones by the U.S. is all in keeping with a young woman who will be sharply critical of the president of Nigeria, on meeting him, for his country’s inability to do more to find 200 young women abducted by the Islamist group Boko Haram. But that same young woman doesn’t like to talk about her own sufferings.

The father of this young woman whose eloquence is now a cornerstone of a lot of people’s hope for the human race stammers.

When Guggenheim runs up against cinematic walls in the tale he wants to tell, he simply – and rather wryly – resorts to animation to get him from narrative point A to narrative point B. The result is less a resort to artifice and trickery than it is a confession by the filmmaker that he knows how very much of this tale is not able to be filmed – or even seen.

That isn’t the point of “He Named Me Malala.”

The point of the film is to give you the opportunity to spend 87 minutes of your life almost unavoidably awestruck. You’re in the company of a young woman who seems, after some thought, one worthy illustration of why our species was invented in the first place.

She may well, in some hidden parts, be full of flaws, timidities, harshnesses and equivocations. And if so, so what? “He Named Me Malala” never claims that she is anything but human, maybe even all too human.

But then think of how very much we know – and possibly thrill to – just from a film that skims the surface.

It makes me glad to be alive in the same era she is. That is more than enough for me in a movie.


He named me malala

3.5 stars

Starring: Malala Yousafzai, Ziauddin Yousafzai

Director: Davis Guggenheim

Running time: 87 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements and disturbing imagery.

The Lowdown: Documentary about the life of the remarkable young woman who became, at 17, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Story topics: / / /

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