A fascinating though soft-focus documentary, Davis Guggenheim’s He Named Me Malala reveals the inspirational teenager fighting for girls’ right to education.
An Educationby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
What you look for in a documentary of this feature length is for it to tell you something that you didn’t already know. To those who follow the news, Malala Yousafzai’s story is well known. This film seemingly sets out to make her story, and the region’s politics, more comprehensible to an outsider from a Western culture. An extraordinarily inspirational girl from Pakistan’s Swat Valley, she seems at times like a prematurely wise old woman in a teenager’s body. But as the title suggests, it’s not just her story. What Davis Guggenheim’s (An Inconvenient Truth) film reveals is the intriguing relationship between Malala and her father, an affinity so close that they describe it as a single soul in two bodies.
Her father did indeed name her Malala – after the 19th century Afghan heroine Malalai who rallied Pashtun men to fight against the British. This history is illustrated with a beautifully drawn animation which opens the film. And the act of naming her, the film suggests, also seems to imply that the activism that has dominated her life was somehow preordained by her father’s choice of name and maybe also stems from her father’s influence throughout her life. They both deny this. Malala says, “My father didn’t make me Malala. I chose this life. And now I must continue it.” But you still wonder.
At school in Pakistan, Malala bravely blogged for the BBC despite the pervading Taliban who destroyed schools, defiantly advocating girls’ rights to education. Her attempted assassination on her school bus by the Taliban as a result prompted international outcry and sympathy. Eventually, having become an international figure, in 2014 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This we already know and the film recounts it through news footage, interviews with Malala and her father, and Malala’s own articulate voiceover. Where it enters new territory is with her father’s back story. The son of a fiery imam, he overcame a crippling stammer in order to speak out publicly, making his name as a political activist in Pakistan, and promoting education by founding an independent school which Malala thought of as home. This, it suggests, is where her passion for education and her compulsion to speak out came from.
Now living in Birmingham, where she was brought for brain surgery for her injuries, which left her smile lopsided, we see Malala’s private face, an ordinary girl relaxing – as far she ever seems to – at home with her family and at school. She teases, and is teased by, her two cheeky, scene-stealing younger brothers. She hides crushes on Brad Pitt, Roger Federer and a star Pakistani cricketer from the enquiring director as any teenager might, though boyfriends are not an option for her. And for the first time we see her mother, a quiet woman who doesn’t speak English and who, ironically, isn’t educated. As a young girl, she left school and sold her schoolbooks to buy sweets. Clearly she isn’t happy in a strange country, where the only familiar thing she sees, she says, is the moon, but this is all we see of her. It’s Malala and her father who are constantly together, who walk together hand in hand at her appearances – a self-assured actor on the international stage – as she speaks at international events.
A lengthy but fast-paced mixture of animated sequences, dramatised reconstructions, news and specially shot footage, He Named Me Malala is a well-made, easy to digest documentary-lite. Though hugely informative on details, it hovers on the borderline between making Malala’s story accessible to outsiders and dumbing it down. Yet it seems carping to critique it. Despite her youth, Malala herself is undeniably a hugely inspirational human being, and still, despite her worldwide fame, rather endearingly grounded and modest. She is important, she says, “not because I am unique, but because I’m not.”
He Named Me Malala is released on 6th November 2015 in the UK