Documentary about teenager who was marked for death by the Taliban — and went on to win a Nobel prize — is a bit of a hagiography . . . . but she deserves one
He Named Me Malala
Featuring: Malala Yousafzai, Ziauddin Yousafzai
Directed by: David Guggenheim
Rating: 3½ stars out of 5
Running time: 120 minutes
By Jay Stone
Malala Yousafzai was named after an Afghanistan folk heroine named Malali of Maiwand, who rallied fighters against British troops in 1880. Malala’s name was her destiny: when she was 14, she was shot by a Taliban gunman for the crime of going to school. One bullet hit her in the face, but she lived and went on to become a new kind of folk heroine, an advocate for the education of girls and a fearless fighter for equality. In 2014, she shared the Nobel Peace Prize.
He Named Me Malala is a documentary about this remarkable teenager and — as its title suggests — an introduction to her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, who also risked death by operating schools for girls in Afghanistan. He occasionally takes centre stage in the movie, but mostly he’s seen proudly beaming in the background.
It’s a remarkable story, if a familiar one by now: Malala has been praised and profiled many times, and director David Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) doesn’t delve too deeply under the surface of what we already know. But that doesn’t make Malala’s journey and less inspiring, and while it bears many of the hallmarks of a hagiography, you come away thinking that if anyone deserves sainthood, it’s Malala Yousafzai.
The family now lives in Birmingham, England — the Yousafzais remain under threat of death from the Taliban — and the scenes around the family’s kitchen table provide the most intimate and telling parts of He Named Me Malala. We meet her younger brothers, who are bracingly unimpressed by having a sister who is a Nobel laureate and are happy to share stories of her misbehaviour. Malala, most often depicted addressing the United Nations or telling world leaders (such as Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan) that they should do their jobs and protect girls, is viewed in a new light. Here she is looking at photographs of Brad Pitt or Roger Federer and giggling with embarrassment when she’s asked if she has ever been out on a date.
Malala, who’s now 18, covers her mouth when she giggles, but that’s about the only time she can be silenced. “It’s better to live like a lion for one day, than to live like a slave for 100 years” was the famous phrase uttered by Malali of Maiwand, and it could be a motto for Malala as well. She is an astonishingly mature young woman who refuses to bear grudges against her attackers and who is calmly — and tirelessly — persistent in her campaign to educate young woman around the world.
It’s a moving tale, one that movie audiences will be happy to cheer, but the film feels like a missed opportunity. Guggenheim doesn’t fill in the many spaces of the story, such as the experiences of Malala’s mother, who is uncomfortable with both the spotlight and, apparently, with Malala’s outspoken fight. We don’t learn much about how the family is faring in their new home, and we don’t hear from any of Malala’s classmates or friends.
Parts of the story — events where no cameras could be present, such as at the actual Taliban shooting — are told with flowing pastel animation that seems at odds with the undercurrent of danger and tend to make Malala’s experiences into a sort of new-age fable. He Named Me Malala is at its best when Malala herself is on screen: self-possessed, brave, smart and worth listening to.
– 30 –