I was intrigued to see what the new film about Malala Yusufzai could possibly add to her story. The Pakistani teenager and Nobel Laureate is, after all, world famous; her speech at the United Nations was broadcast round the globe, she regularly meets world leaders and celebrities, and a fund set up by her and bearing her name oversees education projects all over the world. Malala is famous, she is a campaigner, an international celebrity and, for many, a symbol of hope and progress.
But she also, bizarrely, divides opinion in her own country. Many in Pakistan view her as some sort of Manchurian Candidate, a construct, somebody being promoted by the West… I’ve even heard people blaming her ‘for getting herself shot’. The extent of this negativity is truly astonishing, especially when you realise it is not limited to tribal or right-wing elements but also exists in the educated and urban classes. It is really bizarre that a young girl with a passion for education should be viewed as such a dangerous and controversial personality that even her book should be banned by the KP government.
Articulate young women speaking out against the status quo have never had an easy ride in Pakistan, but Malala’s story is striking for many reasons (not least her youth and her courage) and the new film is not just about her and her family but also about a country at war, about people standing up to tyranny and oppression.
I saw the film at a special screening (a showing and discussion organised by Bertha DocHouse) this month, and was unsure quite what to expect of it. Well, it proved to be an intense experience but also very enjoyable. The title He Named Me Malala (directed by Davis Guggenheim) refers to Malala’s father having named her after Malalai of Maiwand, a Pashtun heroine who spurred on the Afghan forces fighting the British in an important battle of the second Afghan war, but who was killed in the fight. The legend of Malalai and the nationalistic fervour attributed to her in verse is an important part of Pashtun lore, but the filmmaker is fascinated by both the history and association of the name as well as how much the father’s choice has influenced the daughter. The way the film is illustrated with drawings and animation is quite effective and some very good news footage is included.
The thing about Guggenheim’s film is that while it is about a girl and her family it is also very much about a time, a place and a history. The story of the family is illustrated by charming interviews (the brothers are marvellously candid and very entertaining), while the story of an occupied land (Swat during the Taliban ‘reign’) is well illustrated by both interviews and footage. This is the part of Malala’s story that many doubters choose to ignore: her early resistance to the occupation — initially in the form of her very candid Swat Diaries.
BBC Urdu published these chronicles in early 2009 as Diary of a Swat Schoolgirl (produced and transcribed by my colleague Abdul Hai Kakkar), and they document the everyday pressures of occupation and terror: girls are forbidden to attend school, music, film and dance deemed punishable by death, public executions are a regular occurrence, Mullah Fazlullah preaches and threatens residents on Taliban pirate radio broadcasts, the sight and sound of military helicopters strike fear into local children, soldiers at checkposts seem mere spectators. The 12-year-old girl’s observations were both poignant and factual, the detail documenting changes and ruptures in the fabric of everyday life in the valley.
Guggenheim’s film is essentially a portrait in courage as well as an appeal to world powers to nurture its young people and ensure that education is a right. But equally it is a reminder that tyranny can be resisted — as long as memory is not erased. To this day, those who stood up to the Taliban are being singled out and eliminated; and many of those who survived have to live with the heartache of displacement from their homeland…