Fourteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai achieved global fame in 2012 when she was shot in the face by the Taliban for speaking publicly on behalf of girls’ education. When she recovered, she continued her activism, writing a memoir, I am Malala, which was published in 2013 and spent more than 52 weeks on the New York Times’ bestsellers list. In 2014, she became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17.
Davis Guggenheim’s (An Inconvenient Truth) documentary, He Named Me Malala, is a very personal and inspiring portrayal of Malala’s home life, where her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, the son of an imam, lavishes as much love and support on his daughter as he does on his sons. Ziauddin believes that the power of women is greater even than that of the sword or the pen, and he encourages Malala to pursue her education and face threats of violence courageously, despite his obvious awareness of the risks and pain that might result. Indeed, the valor of the entire family can be humbling to American “slacktivists,” who can too often be intimidated by threats as slight as unpleasant social media exchanges. (I’m speaking for myself here.)
Malala’s namesake is Afghan folk heroine, Malalai of Maiwand, who rallied local fighters against the British at the 1880 Battle of Maiwand, fought alongside Ayub Khan where the Afghan forces won, and is known in the western world as the Afghan Joan of Arc. Despite having this role model to live up to, one of the charms of Malala’s documentary is that it portrays her as a normal teenager, as well as a world-renowned activist. Interviews with her good-natured brothers, too, remind us how annoying it might be to live with such an acclaimed older sister.
He Named Me Malala was shortlisted with 14 other documentaries submitted to 88th Academy Awards in Best Documentary Feature category but failed to gain the nomination. In all, the film received 19 nominations and won seven awards. It is available on Hulu, Netflix, National Geographic, and other video platforms.
Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower tells the story of Joshua Wong, who, at the age of 14 and with only a handful of other Hong Kong teens, takes on the Communist People’s Republic of China.
When the British colony of Hong Kong was returned to China’s jurisdiction in 1997, the Chinese government had promised a “one-country, two-system” approach that would assure Hong Kong’s 1.2 million residents continued social and economic freedom for 50 years. In 2012, the Chinese broke their agreement and attempted an educational takeover that students feared would brainwash Hong Kong’s youth. In response, Wong and his friends formed Scholarism, a group dedicated to stopping the insertion of propaganda into Hong Kong schools.
As Scholarism grew through peaceful street protests, leafletting, and occupying a major city civic center, the teens got China to retreat from the education takeover. Soon, however, the Chinese reneged on another promise. Instead of allowing Hong Kong to choose its own leaders, it required candidates to be selected from a China-approved list. Wong and friends took to the streets again, this time with thousands of adults joining. The Chinese government responded with violence, tear gas, and arrests. The teens lost that battle, but through Demosisto, a movement-based political party utilizing direct action, popular referenda, and non-violent means the young people continue to advocate for political and economic autonomy from the oppression of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and capitalist hegemony. The film shows the successful election of student activist Nathan Law to the legislature seat, as he and the group continue to fight the system from within.
Directed by Joe Piscatella, in 2017 Netflix bought the exclusive worldwide distribution rights after the film won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. Viewers can find it there, on Netflix.
The Dream Is Now, also by director Davis Guggenheim, is an emotional 30-minute documentary in support of comprehensive immigration reform, including the Dream Act and other legislative and presidential efforts. The film reveals what’s it’s like to live as a talented but undocumented young adult in America, introducing viewers to aspiring doctor Ola Kaso, student/activist Erika Andiola, U.S. Marine hopeful Alejandro Morales, and Jose Patino, a graduate of Arizona State University’s engineering program. The Dream Is Now also chronicles the tumultuous political journey of The Dream Act, which, if passed, will grant conditional permanent residency to certain undocumented residents who came to the United States as minors. The film reminds us of how the conversations and events surrounding immigration are having a direct impact on America’s political, economic, and social landscape — including the growing power and impact of the Latino vote. Some of the personal stories shared (including one about a teen suicide) are troubling but offered within context and as a way of countering negative stereotypes about undocumented U.S. residents. The film also shows how young people have empowered themselves to promote change through digital media: spreading awareness, sharing information, and mobilizing direct action. (Note: The film is available to stream here.)
A Brave Heart: The Lillie Velasquez story introduces viewers to a young Texas girl born with an extremely rare congenital condition: no adipose tissue, which makes it impossible for her to gain weight. Although Lizzie never looked like anyone else, she lived a fairly normal and happy childhood until, as a teen, she found the video someone posted on YouTube with the title “The World’s Ugliest Woman” — and it was her. Even worse were the hundreds of cruel comments (“Kill it with fire!” “Do everyone a favor and kill yourself!”). Instead of retreating into depression and isolation, however, Lizzie found the strength and courage to fight back: first with her own YouTube channel and then via media and speaking appearances across the country and around the world. She has become a tireless spokesperson for “embracing who you are,” and is now using her influence in support of anti-bullying legislation like the Safe Schools Improvement Act.
Directed by Sarah Hirsh Bordo, A Brave Heart shows Lizzie making friends and running into fans wherever she goes. Her genuine humility and constant message of loving yourself, being yourself, and following your dreams have inspired young people around the world to follow her example. The film is available on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.