You’ve probably never heard of Malalai of Maiwand, even if you do know the story of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who won the Nobel Peace Prize after she was shot by the Taliban for insisting that girls should go to school.
But Malala Yousafzai’s father, Ziauddan Yousafzai, was thinking of Malalai of Maiwand, a heroic girl who rallied Pashtun fighters in the 1880 Battle of Maiwand against England, when he named his daughter.
“It is better to live like a lion for one day than to live like a slave for one hundred years,” Malalai of Maiwand is said to have cried as she rallied the fighters.
Malalai was killed, but the fighters won the battle.
In the new film “He Named Me Malala,” Academy Award-winning director Davis Guggenheim gently teases out an intimate portrait of both Malala Yousafzai and her father, now living in exile in Great Britain with her mother and two younger brothers.
The film is now in general theatrical release, but it was one of the feature films of the Hamptons International Film Festival’s “Films of Conflict & Resolution” series over the Columbus Day holiday weekend, where guests included Princess Zebunisa of the Swat Valley, where Malala Yousafzai grew up.
The film makes good use of a non-linear narrative.
It begins by showing Malala at her new home with her younger brothers — unveiling her private life through hilarious interviews with her brothers (they think she is too serious), embarrassedly showing the camera her less-than-stellar grades at her new school and sneaking peeks at pictures on her computer of her favorite cricket stars.
But the magic of the story begins to seep in through animated tales of her life in the Swat Valley, of a dreamy paradise where her father ran a school, there were fruit trees in the backyard, and the family enjoyed the beauty of their hidden valley.
Then, it snaps to gritty footage of the Talaban’s takeover of their town, of the Taliban emir Maulana Fazlullah‘s nightly radio broadcasts, played on loudspeakers denouncing her neighbors, her friends, and then, finally, announcing that they were coming for her.
Ziauddan Yousafzai, Malala’s father, was long an education activist before Malala followed in his footsteps. Several people on the street asked by the filmmakers what they think of Malala said they believed her father swayed her to take a stand she never would have taken without his urging.
The film tackles that controversy head-on, in candid interviews with both father and daughter. At many points Ziauddan is near tears when he wonders if he has driven his daughter to become the woman she is now becoming.
In 2009, when she was just 11 years old, Malala agreed to write a blog for the BBC under a pseudonym detailing her life under the Taliban’s thumb, after no one else in her father’s school was willing to take the risk.
A year later, she began speaking publicly against the Taliban’s rule, demanding that girls should have the right to go to school.
She and two other girls were shot while sitting on a school bus in October of 2012, and she was airlifted to England for surgery to remove the bullet and stop the swelling in her brain.
One of the most striking things about this documentary is the firey nature of her early speeches, when contrasted with her introspection since she was nearly killed.
At one point the filmmaker asks her flat-out why she never talks about her pain. She blinks and then changes the subject. When he points out that she’s changed the subject, she simply nods slightly and then continues on.
“If my rights are violated, I should rather die than to live,” she said at one point in the film. “My father only gave me my name. I chose this life, and now it’s important that I continue it.”
Malala still doesn’t know if she will ever be able to return home to the valley that nurtured her in childhood — the Taliban still insists that both she and her father will be killed if they return.
But, as portrayed in this film, just her presence bearing witness to the rights of women trying to find education around the world is a journey that will last her a lifetime.