Davis Guggenheim takes an entirely conventional approach to He Named Me Malala and it’s hard to argue with the chosen path. This 2015 documentary is wholly deferential in its portrait of Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, as it should be, but there’s an inherent lack of focus that keeps it from being all that it can be.
The youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate has advocated for educational rights for women around the world and has become one of the most influential public figures on the planet. She is a fearless teenager and a ferocious activist. She never avoids speaking the truth to power, lending her voice and popularity to various issues and causes.
He Named Me Malala begins with an animated portion telling the story of Afghanistan folk hero Malalai of Maiwand, a teenager who rallied the troops against the British in 1880’s Battle of Maiwand. Ziauddin Yousafzai chose to name his daughter after Malalai, not knowing what would await her in life. The Pakistani diplomat’s love of education impacted Malala’s life and gave her the thirst for knowledge.
But it also put her in the crosshairs of the Taliban, especially after she began blogging for the BBC as the militants began to take hold in her home of Swat Valley. Malala persisted as the Taliban shut down schools and refused to cave, even winning Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize in 2011. The Taliban decided to kill her and targeted her for death in October of 2012. The rest is history.
He Named Me Malala does not explore Malala’s life in linear fashion, which can be a bit of a problem because Guggenheim retreads a lot of the same ground. He returns to the assassination attempt a number of times, drawing it into fuller detail with each passing loop. This isn’t effective because it derails talk of the present day Malala.
The Taliban’s objections to educating women are detailed somewhat, but one only gets the sense of their encroachment in communities like Swat Valley in bits and pieces. Guggenheim highlights certain events, like the destruction of “vulgar” media, but the picture is muddled by the slapdash approach.
He Named Me Malala’s best political moments come when the Taliban’s own ghastly proclamations are laid over scenes of their destruction, with Malala’s defiant speeches and actions filtering through as well. And Guggenheim does nicely contrast her public toughness with the normality of her home life, with scenes of her brothers talking about their sister brimming with sunshine and life.
There are other interesting corners, like the relationship between Malala and her father. Sometimes, he sounds like he blames himself for what happened to his daughter. For the most part, though, he brims with pride and asserts that she chose the path for herself. He is ever at her side, however, and is a pretty damn rousing presence by his own right.
Malala’s relationship with her mother is different. At one point in the film, Guggenheim covers Tor Pekai Yousafzai as a young girl selling her books in exchange for candy. She never turned back to education, which is something that clearly bothers Malala. It also motivates her, at least it must. But she never appears overly close to her mother and Guggenheim isn’t one to pry.
The director spends a little time detailing Malala’s run through Western celebrity and his subject never seems entirely comfortable with the idea of fame. A few seconds demarcate some of the criticism back in Pakistan, with one man suggesting that she’s just a fictional character and another declaring that Malala ran away from her native land to live in cushy Britain. These points are never examined.
For the most part, this is a puff piece and that’s fine. It’s well-constructed, even if it does roll through all the usual rousing “cause doc” paces. And it tells an important story, one that’s more necessary than ever in these divisive times. Malala’s will for all to have the right to an education and a life worth living should be shouted from the rooftops.