TIFF: Malala Yousafzai Is Heroic and Human in 'He Named Me Malala'

With the documentary releasing in select theaters today, here are eight takeaways from the film that offer a more intimate picture of Malala Yousafzai.
He Named Me Malala Photo

Malala Yousafzai with African students in 'He Named Me Malala.' (Photo: Courtesy of TIFF)

Centered among a swarm of chaos and a crushing crowd of men stands a tiny Pakistani school girl. Her high-pitched voice explodes in protest with unwavering conviction and indignation as she demands a very simple thing: her right and the rights of all young girls to be educated.

She was the cub who dared to roar like a lion.

This was Malala Yousafzai before the Taliban's assassination attempt on her in 2012. And this is Malala Yousafzai today.

Mixing animation, family photos, interviews, and powerful video footage of Malala's life in Pakistan before and after the terrorizing reign of the Taliban, director Davis Guggenheim explores the extraordinary — almost seemingly preordained — life of the 18-year-old education advocate in He Named Me Malala.

But as the name suggests, Malala's narrative is not hers alone. The documentary delves into the unbreakable bond she shares with her influential former school teacher/activist father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, and how they, along with the rest of their family, adjust to their newfound fame and life in Birmingham, England.

Here are eight highlights we took away from He Named Me Malala, which made its debut at this year's Toronto Film Festival.

Malala was named after Afghan national folk hero Malalai of Maiwand.

While Malala was in her mother's womb, her father would tell her the story of 19th century female warrior Malalai of Maiwand, who inspired her fellow Pashtun soldiers in the battlefield to keep their spirits up as they fought against the British in the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

According to legend, Malalai was killed in battle, but her powerful words to the Afghan troops led them to victory. In the West, Malalai of Maiwand is compared to Joan of Arc — the same attribution holds true for Malala, although she's referred to as a "living martyr."

Malala is a mischievous older sister.

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Little brother Atal and Malala. (Photo: Courtesy of TIFF)

Despite her prestigious accolades (she's made TIME's 100 Most Influential People list, is a national bestselling author, and the youngest co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014), Malala is, according to her two younger brothers, a "violent" terror of a sibling and often slaps them in their faces. "It's a sign of how much I love you!" Malala jokingly responds.

Malala is a daddy's girl.

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Like father, like daughter: Ziauddin and Malala. (Photo: Courtesy of TIFF)

Much of the emotional weight carried in the film is seen through the deeply held bond between father and daughter as they travel together to humanitarian events and missions all over the world. There are lighter moments as well, when daughter teaches an eager father how to Tweet. Her father says of their relationship, we are "one soul, two different bodies."

Malala is not bitter at the Taliban for maiming her.

Despite being paralyzed on the left side of her face and incurring hearing loss in one ear, Malala without hesitation claims she feels no anger whatsoever towards the Taliban. "Not one atom, not one proton-size angry," she asserts.


Malala is a normal teenager.

While no one would contest Malala's inner strength, she herself opens up about her vulnerabilities as a teenager starting a new life in a foreign country. She admits she's insecure that her fellow classmates may not like her and uncomfortable with how short the skirt lengths are at school.

He Named Me Malala Photo

(Photo: Courtesy of TIFF)

Malala's mother is not educated.

Despite having an opportunity to go to school at age five, Malala's mother traded her school books in for five pieces of candy. In the film, Malala seems to believe that her mother's lack of education attributes to her conservatism, offering one example of how her mother tells her not to look at men directly. (Not so surprising, Malala doesn't heed the advice.)

He Named Me Malala Photo

(Photo: Courtesy of TIFF)

Malala's father has a speech disorder.

Ziauddin Yousafzai suffers from stammering, but as Malala points out proudly, her father doesn't back down; instead of skipping the word that's causing the problem, he stammers through it. Despite his handicap, her father rose up as a rebellious community leader in their hometown and a staunch activist against the Taliban. "If I keep silent, I should better die than exist," he's said.

Malala doesn't like to discuss her suffering.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the film is when director Davis Guggenheim points out Malala's evasiveness whenever he asks about her suffering. When he gently presses her on the subject, she laughs uncomfortably. She doesn't offer an explanation. 

What's communicated from the silent exchange between subject and filmmaker is open to interpretation. Nonetheless, you're reminded that behind her steely spirit and insurmountable courage, Malala is still very much human.