‘He Named Me Malala’ Telluride Review: Film About Teen Pakistani Activist Draws Tears and Applause

Davis Guggenheim’s documentary is a surprise choice for the festival-opening “secret screening”

On a day when everybody was talking about the documentary that didn’t screen at the Telluride Film Festival, Sydney Pollack’s blocked-by-injunction Aretha Franklin film “Amazing Grace,” the festival unveiled another non-fiction film in the “secret screening” slot to kick off the 42nd Telluride.

Davis Guggenheim‘s “He Named Me Malala,” about the teenage Pakistani girl whose activism on behalf of female education and human rights won her the Nobel Peace Prize but also made her a target of the Taliban, seemed at first like a strange choice to open the festival. But it moved the Telluride audience to tears and applause, which is more than most films in that slot do.

The premiere had a few false starts as the film rolled out for a crowd of about 300 who waited in the rain. The film is a tribute to Malala Yousafzai’s work, but also the work of her father and her father’s father. Her father’s presence brings some of the only controversy the subject has endured: Did he put her in harm’s way? Is he using her for his own fame? No deed goes unpunished in this world, of course, and you will probably never encounter two more well-intentioned, honorable people than Malala and her beloved father.

Many of us know Malala as a symbol and not a girl – certainly not a typical teenager with annoying little brothers, homework and a mild but growing interest in boys. This film gives her admirers the chance to see that side of Malala, who has recovered heroically from a gunshot to the face by a militant member of the Taliban.

Radical Islam is the enemy of educated girls — and boys. Her punishment for speaking out against their oppression was brutal and nearly fatal. Her recovery isn’t the whole story, nor is the murder. This isn’t a film about the telling of that past but a film about the telling of the future: her future, and our future.

Guggenheim’s admiration for his subject is abundantly clear. This isn’t a critical look at Malala — as if. There is an agenda here, and one Guggenheim, whose best-known film is the Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth,” feels passionately about. His 2010 film “Waiting for Superman” was about teachers and the broken public school system in the U.S. “He Named Me Malala” stands in stark contrast, because in a world where women are told they are good for nothing but studying religion, being wives and having babies, access to even the worst public schools here would be a gift to those who are threatened with death for even contemplating them.

“He Named Me Malala” is a film made not for masterpiece-hungry critics but rather for everyone else, particularly teachers and students who know that learning more about Malala is inspiring in unmeasurable ways. Mostly, it can be valuable in waking our American school children and parents up to the idea that education is to be prioritized, valued and made more easily accessible.

The most remarkable thing about Malala is her enduring drive to educate herself. She is turned on by knowledge — science, history, politics. Her mind is hungry for more and her father helped instill in her an entitlement to that knowledge.

How does the Taliban or any radical Islamic group plan to subvert this drive in the long term? They can’t. Not as long as there is a student, a teacher, a lesson, a book.