Film review: The powerful He Named Me Malala underserves its heroine

The lack of exploration in Davis Guggenheim’s He Named Me Malala undercuts the true magnitude of the young activist’s accomplishments. Photo: Fox Searchlight The lack of exploration in Davis Guggenheim’s He Named Me Malala undercuts the true magnitude of the young activist’s accomplishments. Photo: Fox Searchlight

Few people in recent memory have risen to the challenge of history as has Malala Yousafzai, the remarkable young Pakistani education activist who miraculously survived an attempt on her life by the Taliban for her outspoken views. Malala began anonymously feeding information and arguments about the status of female access to education in the Swat Valley to the BBC at age 11, then soon ditched her pseudonym and began speaking publicly, facing down threats of violent retaliation.

On October 9, 2011, a gunman came to her classroom, called her by name and shot her in the head. After her astounding recovery, Malala did not retreat, instead she grew more confident and sharper in her words and deeds as she spoke to world leaders, appeared on numerous talk shows and visited impoverished and crisis-stricken regions, culminating in being the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. She is more than a tragic symbol. She is a born leader.

If only Davis Guggenheim, director of He Named Me Malala, were as invested in her views as she is. His choice to prioritize Malala the teenager over Malala the thinker overpowers this film to such a degree that the only thing keeping it from coming off as a patronizing pat on the head is the infectious passion of Malala herself and her father, Ziauddin. The father- daughter duo is so engaging that a single, unbroken shot of the two alternately joking and philosophizing for 90 minutes would be entertaining on its own, and Ziauddin’s pride in his daughter and passion for social justice are a fascinating component to the Malala story, which has largely gone untold. For that, the film deserves to be seen, but as a documentary, it leaves far too much unsaid to be taken as the official word.

The film is called He Named Me Malala, in contrast to Malala’s own autobiography, co-written by Christina Lamb, titled I Am Malala. This is a small distinction, but one that is telling of the shift in focus. The film begins with a stylized animation retelling the story of Malalai of Maiwand, a Pashtun folk hero and Malala’s namesake who was killed in 1880 after inspiring her countrymen not to surrender to the British. As the film progresses, we find that naming her is just the first of many ways her father fostered her fighting, questioning spirit and that he too struggled to find his voice, overcoming a stammer that might have deterred others from a life of public speaking. We also learn of Ziauddin’s guilt over Malala’s shooting, fearing that she would blame him for putting her in harm’s way by challenging the Taliban.

Guggenheim—who previously helmed Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and public-versus-charter school investigation Waiting for Superman—unfortunately paints Malala with broader strokes than he does her father. There are several moments where the film cuts away from a montage of her speeches and TV appearances to, for instance, her playful younger brother confused about her dedication to homework, or standing over her shoulder as she searches for images of athletes and actors she admires but giggles evasively at the suggestion that these might be crushes.

Humanizing moments like these certainly have a place in the film, but should only be occasional reminders of the ways in which she’s just like everyone else, to emphasize the ways she is not. Meanwhile, the fact that she told President Obama that drone strikes only foment further radicalization barely gets a blip. The content of her public appearances too often blur together as montages, and a momentary glimpse of anti-Malala sentiment in Pakistan is intriguing yet remains strangely unexamined.

Though certainly worth seeing for its subjects, in the end, Guggenheim’s preference for sentimentality over insight leaves He Named Me Malala feeling like a pencil sketch of a subject that deserves an epic portrait.

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