He Named Me Malala
Christian Movie Review

Kevin Ott - Editor and Writer for Rocking God's House (small)“He Named Me Malala,” featuring Mobin Khan and Malala Yousafzai and directed by Davis Guggenheim, is a new documentary that tells the astonishing true story of a tragedy-turned-triumph, as described in this press release:

He Named Me Malala Movie Poster At Rocking Gods House“HE NAMED ME MALALA is an intimate portrait of Malala Yousafzai, who was wounded when Taliban gunmen opened fire on her and her friends school bus in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. The then 15-year-old teenager, who had been targeted for speaking out on behalf of girls education in her region of Swat Valley in Pakistan, was shot in the head, sparking international media outrage. An educational activist in Pakistan, Yousafzai has since emerged as a leading campaigner for the rights of children worldwide and in December 2014, became the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.”

I found the documentary to be a surprisingly hushed, brooding telling of the events — the kind of quiet fire that sticks in your memory long after you’ve seen it. More on that in a moment, but first…

Parental Guidance Content at a Glance for this PG-13 rated film

Sexual Content/Nudity/Themes of Sexuality and Romance: None.

Violence/Gore/Scary Content: Because the film is about Malala being shot in the head, there are disturbing images (scenes in the hospital and medical scans of her brain, for example) and depictions of the Taliban making threats of violence.

Language: None.

Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: None.

Entertainment Value and Film Craft

The film masterfully combines news footage, interviews with Malala, and animation sequences to tell a story that’s as gripping as any Hollywood drama. The animation in particular adds an atmospheric depth to the mood of the rest of the film: brooding, surprisingly quiet and contemplative, considering the violent subject matter, but never boring.

Themes of Redemption, Speculation about the Film’s Worldview, Religious Content, Etc.

The film presents a clear picture of Malala’s activism and her brave spirit. She risks her life and comes very close to giving her life for the cause of giving girls access to education in countries where their culture brutally oppress females. The primary theme is most definitely courage — a very rare kind of courage. Malala is a Muslim, and her persecution comes at the hands of other Muslims, which adds a very dynamic, complex storytelling tension throughout the film. It definitely keeps you riveted. Although the film doesn’t ask her to provide a highly detailed “statement of faith,” it seems that she advocates a non-political form of Islam that frowns upon people using Islam as a politically-organized force backed by guns and soldiers. She and her father clearly oppose militant Islam, in other words. (Though they still talk proudly about the “beauty of Islam,” despite being threatened by people who — when you read the history books — seem to be imitating the militaristic, often brutally violent practices of the religion’s first generation founders in the 600s.) She bravely presents herself as the anti-Taliban, and indeed, throughout the movie, we see how she became one of the Taliban’s top enemies.

He Named Me Malala Christian Movie Review At Rocking Gods HouseAs far as her worldview, in one scene she sums up her view on the meaning of life this way: “God has sent us to this world to see how good we live — will we choose a bad way or a good way.”

Her statement presents a concise summary of works-based religion, which is by far the most common worldview among all the religions. (And that term alone, “works-based religion,” opens up a huge topic that I’ll touch on in my “tangent section” further below.)

She also levels a very concise criticism toward the Taliban and any group like the Taliban when she says, “They were not about faith; they were about power.”

To be clear, the film does not spend all its time talking about Malala’s religious views or her father’s religious views. It’s focused more on their activism. But there’s even more than just the activism. We also see a well-rounded portrait of her personality. We learn, for example, that her favorite book of all time is the novel “The Alchemist” and that she loves Stephen Hawking’s book “A Brief History of Time.” That was one of my favorite moments. There were many other delightful moments like that one where the camera shows us the unguarded Malala, away from her activist podium, just being a normal person with a sense of humor, quirks, and a wide range of likes and dislikes. (We learn, for example, that she has a fear of dogs. We also see her helping her father understand Facebook.)

Works-Based Religion vs. Grace-Based Religion

Regarding the term “works-based religion” that I mentioned previously: this is a lengthy side-note that isn’t exactly relevant to the review, but if you’re curious about what that term means, you might find this section interesting. If you’re not curious about the term and just want to read the rest of the review, you can skip to the Conclusion section below.

Malala’s statement about the meaning of life touched on a topic that I’ve studied for many years and feel passionate about: works-based religion vs. grace-based religion. Works-based religion (also known as moralism) means that your standing with God is determined entirely by your works — your good or bad deeds. In other words, in that religious context, there is always a score card that tallies up all your good deeds and bad deeds, and your only hope is scoring more good deeds than bad deeds. Your score — your performance as a “good person” — determines your standing in the eyes of God. That is the core foundation of all works-based religions. It is about human effort trying to get to God. Islam, whether moderate/non-violent or militant, embraces a works-based belief in which you are in a good standing with God only after you’ve sufficiently fulfilled certain requirements.

What’s even more interesting is that this works-based system of “righteousness” (i.e the things that makes you in right standing with the people around you and with God if you believe in Him) finds its way into secular culture — minus the God part. There are many social, political, structures of approval in our society that build itself entirely on a works-based system in which the people in that social environment keep a silent score card that determines your acceptability and your access to the inner circle of that section of culture. Some places, like New York City, can be utterly ruthless with this kind of social structure and far more demanding even than many religions. They may not be working to find favor with God anymore, but they’ve replaced God with some other ultimate goal — i.e. some level of succ
ess or some symbolic status or some membership to an inner circle — and they’ve built an intricate works-based religion around that goal that is every bit as demanding and rules-focused as Islam or the Judaism of ancient Israel.

It’s interesting, many Westerners mistakenly portray Christianity as a works-based moralistic religion. Although some corners of Americanized Christianity have twisted the Gospel into a form of works-based moralism, Christianity as taught by its founder Jesus Christ presents something entirely different. He presented the only grace-based religion that claimed that God Himself entered history as a human being, took all of our moral imperfections upon Himself, and paid our spiritual debts for us. It’s a completely opposite approach to the works-based system. In the Gospel that Christ taught, we do not do good deeds to try and score enough points and earn our way into the good graces of God. Jesus has already scored all the points we will ever need, and those points are credited to us if we believe His promise of forgiveness and receive that gift in faith. The good works flow out of a heart of gratitude and joy for what God has already done on our behalf to save us. We don’t do the good works to earn our way to God and achieve some kind moral superiority over others. In fact, if a person really believes the heart of the Gospel — that Jesus willingly died on the Cross for them to pay their spiritual debts, and then rose from the dead to prove that He has the authority and power to clear those debts — then they will never become morally arrogant. They will understand that, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” as Romans 3:23 says, and the favor and relationship they have with God is a gift of grace — not because they are morally superior to anyone.

Conclusion: Malala Gives Us an Unforgettable Example of Courage

One of my favorite lines comes in the closing scenes when Malala says, “I tell my story not because I am unique but because I am not.” By this she means that there are millions of other girls like her suffering under oppressive cultures and ideologies that deny them education and basic freedoms — just like the ideology that sent a bullet through her brain. The thought of that is a burden on her heart, and she sees her life as an opportunity to give those people a voice, even though it means facing death threats and other forms of attack.

The name Malala, I think, could become synonymous with the word “courage.”

My rating for “He Named Me Malala”: [usr 7] (See my notes below on the rating scale.)

[Note: if you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis, please check out my new blog Stabs of Joy or my podcast Aslan’s Paw. Both seek to crack open the surprising treasures of Christian belief — the things that Western society has forgotten, ignored, or never encountered — with the help of logic, literature, film, music, and one very unsafe Lion.]


Note about my rating system for the movie’s film craft and entertainment value:

1 star = one of the worst movies ever made (the stuff of bad movie legends), and it usually (not always) has below 10% on Rotten Tomatoes

2-3 stars = a mostly bad movie that has a handful of nice moments; it usually falls between 10-30% on Rotten Tomatoes

4-6 stars = a decent movie with some flaws, overall. Four stars mean its flaws outweigh the good. Five stars mean equal good, equal bad. Six stars mean it’s a fairly good movie, with some great moments even, that outweigh a few flaws. A 4-6 star rating usually means it falls between 30-59% on Rotten Tomatoes (but not always).

7-9 stars = a rare rating reserved only for the best movies of that year; and a film must have a Fresh Tomato rating (60% or higher) on Rotten Tomatoes to be given 7 stars or higher, with a few exceptions (if I strongly disagree with the critics).

10 stars = one of the best films of all time, right up there with the all-time greats (i.e. Casablanca, The African Queen, Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars Episode IV, Indiana Jones, etc.).

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He Named Me Malala Movie Poster At Rocking Gods House