He Named Me Malala
Documentary exalts, humanizes teenage activist
He Named Me Malala (2015)
Directed by Davis Guggenheim
If you’re looking for inspirational, modern-day uplift, you could do worse than the remarkable true-life story of Pakistani teen Malala Yousafzai. Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim’s documentary He Named Me Malala relates Malala’s well-known tale of speaking out against the Taliban and getting shot in the head for her troubles and combines it with images of the unstoppable young lady using her sudden fame to promote schooling around the globe. It’s a simple film with a bald-faced agenda, turning the past into a fairy tale of good vs. evil and the present into a heart-tugging promo video for education. Although it avoids a deeper geopolitical analysis of the factors that led to Malala’s tragedy and triumph, it’s a wonderfully emotional story smartly crafted for kids and adults.
Given the other films on his resume (Al Gore’s 2006 environmental tract An Inconvenient Truth and 2010’s public education excoriation Waiting for “Superman”), it’s not at all surprising to see Guggenheim champing at the bit to tell Malala’s story. He does so in bits and pieces, spreading it out across the length of the film. Interestingly, Guggenheim has chosen to express the flashback sequences in a rough, oil stick painting-style of animation. It ties in nicely with the overall “theme” of the film, which is related to the origin of Malala’s name—a central Asian legend about a girl whose voice inspired Afghan warriors to rise up against their British oppressors. It’s a lovely technique, but it does have the unfortunate side effect of lessening the seriousness of what happened in 2012. Given that the filmmakers are probably aiming at a family audience, it’s wise to avoid the grisliest details about Malala’s shooting. However, the distance the cartoon images impart make the story—
It’s probably also a good thing that the film doesn’t dwell too much on the past. Driven, perhaps, by Malala’s assertion that she has “not one proton” of anger toward her attackers, Guggenheim spends more time showing what she has accomplished with her second lease on life after fleeing her home country for asylum in England. Where He Named Me Malala excels is in giving us a glimpse at the young lady behind the headlines. It’s refreshing—a relief, even—to find the Nobel Peace Prize-winning, UN-addressing, “Daily Show”-guesting activist acting like an ordinary teenage girl. At home she fights with her little brothers, Googles pictures of Brad Pitt online and worries if the other kids at school like her.
The film also finds time to tell the story of the whole Yousafzai family—from her parents’ first meeting to her father’s building of a school in Pakistan’s rural Swat Valley. Malala grew up in that school, and it’s her lifelong passion for learning that fuels the film’s narrative thrust. As Malala—still a devoted Muslim—talks about the Taliban’s charismatic appearance, its slow erosion of personal freedoms and its eventual banning of education for women in Pakistan, it’s easy to realize the simple truth of the matter. This really isn’t a question of religion. These monsters aren’t interested in spirituality; they’re interested in power. And their techniques—from demonizing education to burning books—are the techniques of petty dictators since time immemorial. Seeing Malala visit young refugees fleeing war-torn Syria or lending her support to families whose daughters were kidnapped by Boko Haram extremists in Nigeria, you realize the problems of rural Pakistan are simply mirrors for the problems of the world.
There are moments when Guggenheim trips over a darker, more serious narrative: Malala’s reticence to talk about her shooting, her almost pitying thoughts on her own mother’s lack of education, the nagging question of her beloved father’s culpability in Malala’s growth as an outspoken activist. But the man behind the camera never asks more than once. And with such a well-spoken subject in front of the camera, the lack of journalistic depth rarely feels like an oversight. Still in her teens, Malala is a remarkable young lady. It’s hardly surprising that the film wants to admire and honor her. Her story is astonishing. Her cause is inspiring. Her words are uplifting. To know the most terrifying thing the Taliban can imagine is a 15-year-old schoolgirl speaking her mind is to realize the utter weakness of the group’s ideology.
Evil gets a lot of airtime these days. All you have to do is turn on the evening news to realize that. But He Named Me Malala reminds us how much better and stronger good is than evil—even when it’s wrapped in the package of a seemingly ordinary teenage girl.