Pedestrian Filmmaking Can’t Destroy “Malala”

He Named Me Malala

He Named Me Malala (Davis Guggenheim, 2015)

At the age of 15, Malala Yousafzai was shot by a Taliban gunman in her hometown in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. The reason? She was a champion of young women’s education, and deemed a threat to the patriarchy. She survived, went to the United Kingdom for treatment, accompanied by her family, and made a home in Birmingham. She continued speaking out on behalf of women everywhere, traveling to parts of the globe where female education is still viewed with hostility, and in 2014 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s a powerful story, some of which is told in I Am Malala, a 2013 book that Ms. Yousafzai co-wrote with journalist Christina Lamb. Unfortunately, it is given the Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient TruthWaiting for ‘Superman’) treatment, which means that pedestrian filmmaking – including unexamined assumptions/assertions and distracting non-diegetic music – threatens to overwhelm the beauty of the tale. Still, Malala has proven resilient beyond all measure, and will, I am sure, pull through this.

The movie opens well, with voices under the opening titles (Guggenheim’s and Malala’s) that lead into the first of many animated sequences (one was enough). This first scene tells the story of the mythic Malala, a 19th-century teenage girl who rallied retreating Afghan forces (against the British) with the cry, “It is better to live like a lion for one day than to live like a slave for 100 years.” It’s a beautiful beginning, and the animated Malala’s red outfit mirrors that worn by her modern-day counterpart. We then move to Birmingham, England, where we meet our Malala and her family. The first thing that strikes us is Malala’s youth: she may be an internationally known activist, but she is still an adolescent.

It’s in the family moments that the film begins to break down. They are sweet, but overlong. Instead of spending so much time with the brothers, I wish that Guggenheim had spent more time examining, in greater detail, the motivations of the father, Ziauddin Yousafzai. He clearly loves his daughter deeply, but has also been quite willing to put her in the way of danger from an early age. We learn that he sees himself as an inspirational speaker – his father was also a great leader – and sees Malala as following directly in his footsteps. We also learn that his wife, Khushal – Malala’s mother – is virtually illiterate, raising troubling questions about his own motivations in educating Malala. Guggenheim does explore this territory, but only at a distance. It is far easier to focus on the inspirational story of Malala’s phoenix-like rise and globe-trotting activism. To his credit, he did title the film “HE Named Me Malala” – a noted shift from the book’s “I Am Malala” – but he skirts the full implications of that alteration’s meaning.

Overall, however, as with An Inconvenient Truth, the subject matter is ultimately more important than the (lack of) artistry. Malala’s story deserves to be told (though not everyone in the Swat Valley agrees), however ineptly, and if this is the only documentary out there, then it should be seen. Keep in mind, though, that as with Waiting for ‘Superman’, Guggenheim is better at asking easy questions than providing complicated answers.

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