“He Named Me Malala” features an extraordinary woman in a less-than-perfect documentary
Director: Davis Guggenheim
Starring: Malala Yousafzai, Ziauddin Yousafzai
To say that Malala Yousafzai is an extraordinary person is an understatement. For speaking out in support of Pakistani girls’ rights to an adequate education, the Taliban shot her in the head when she was only 15 years-old. She survived the murderous attempt, continued to speak out for girls and won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize at the tender age of 17. When asked if she was angry at the man who fired a bullet into her head, she responded, “Not one atom (in her entire body).”
This individual truly is one in a billion, and in the documentary “He Named Me Malala”, director Davis Guggenheim tells her amazing story by exploring the origins of her resiliency while also capturing frank discussions with her family. Some of the film’s best moments are when Guggenheim focuses his camera on Malala’s home life in the Yousafzai family’s new household in England. The audience sees Malala playing card games and laughing with her younger brothers around the house. She also begrudgingly talks about boys in the same way that the average American teenage girl might refer to boy bands on the front pages of “Tiger Beat”, and all of these scenes truly enforce the fact that Malala is still just a kid.
At the same time, she speaks as a woman way beyond her 18 years. She opens our eyes as she explains that a significant percentage of Pakistani women grow up illiterate, and her father – Ziauddin – mentions that their 300 year-old family tree did not contain one female name. Not one. That is until he proudly added Malala to it. Guggenheim shows her father’s eye-opening influence as a driving force behind Malala’s progressive beliefs.
The film, however, does not stay put too long, and unfortunately, this is a significant problem. The movie’s flow feels very choppy and disorganized, as it constantly jumps between shots of Malala’s home life, video footage of her in Kenya or Syria providing support for women, meeting with various world renowned leaders (including President Obama and Hillary Clinton), cute photographs of her as a child, and reenactments via animation. A documentary does not need to follow a completely linear flow – like the recent docs “Amy” (2015) and “Senna” (2010) - but “He Named Me Malala” follows no such pattern. The result is not exactly a confusing film, but a frustrating one.
The aforesaid animation is another distraction. When a documentarian wants to explain past events without possessing the basic visual footage, he or she can film interviews in which the interviewees converse about them. The filmmaker can also shoot reenactments, show still photos or offer animation. Animation can be an effective tool, but Guggenheim takes too much liberty. At first, the animation engages. For example, one animated sequence explains the origins of Malala’s name, and it takes a spirited and celebratory tone. In another scene, the film creates good feelings, as it plays out the happiness of Malala’s birth. A little animation can go a long way, but the film repeatedly dives – throughout the entire 1 hour 27 minute runtime - into one “cartoonish” moment after another, and very quickly the technique becomes tiresome.
The picture also misses an opportunity to interview various political leaders about Malala’s impact on the world community. We see the aforementioned footage with government heads of state or important organizations standing with Malala, but I do not recall one sit-down on-camera interview with one. The consolation (and, admittedly, it is a very good one) is we do get to hear Malala’s feelings, believes and also her struggles with her injuries straight from the woman herself. Malala has heaps of thoughtful discourse for a world stage, and this film provides a terrific platform. Sitting through “He Named Me Malala”, I cherished those moments. I only wish the movie’s structure and technical choices lived up to the woman featured in the title. (2/4 stars)