When we think of Malala Yousafzai, her Nobel Peace Prize or righteous speeches might come to mind, but He Named Me Malala aims to remind audiences that this icon is still a seventeen year old girl who’s navigating her new life in the spotlight.
The documentary starts off in an inspirational vein, with Malala narrating why her father Ziauddin named her after an Afghani folk hero who saved her village, but was fatally shot by the oppressors. It’s an eerie coincidence then that Malala was shot by the Taliban in 2012 for encouraging girls to go to school, and speaking out against the regime. She, however, did make a miraculous recovery and go onto to her current position as one of the world’s leading activists for female education.
Filmmaker David Guggenheim has done an admirable job of making Malala’s story come alive through the various animated passages of the film, which recount parts of her life story, like the poignant moment when Ziauddin brings out the family tree and writes her name in it, marking her as the first daughter featured on it. As vibrant and enchanting as these passages are, the director tends to rely on them as a crutch to underscore moments of Malala’s history that we already know about, like her exile from the Swat Valley that’s illustrated with her in a car driving away. It becomes very heavy-handed in parts, and makes it rather distracting from the distressing moments that Ziauddin or Malala are narrating. It’s likely they’re intended to make her story palatable for an all-ages audience to embrace, but it’s rather unnecessary.
The structure is also quite haphazard as the story jumps back and forth in time, with one section focusing on Ziauddin’s outspoken activism, then switching to Malala’s visits to Jordan and the United Nations. Guggenheim is clearly enchanted by Malala, which is fine, but the film constructs it as more of a hero-worship project where Malala vanquishes her oppressors with sterling speeches and bold words. In his central narrative of a father-daughter bond, Guggenheim doesn’t exactly delve into much more than getting Ziauddin to attest to Malala’s impressive will, which is disappointing since they’re a splendid team on screen.
Where the film gains the most potency is in the family’s diasporic struggles and unanswered questions. The Taliban have threatened to kill Malala if she ever sets foot in Pakistan again, which is a very real danger that permeates her current life, especially in her yearning to go back and check on her house. It’s heartbreaking, because it’s a struggle that many immigrants and refugees can instantly relate to, because your “home” will always house your special memories and where you are currently can feel like a forcible exile. It’s only slightly dealt with but it appears that Malala’s mother is quite homesick and is finding it hard to adapt to her new homeland. Alternatively, Malala’s brothers Khushal and Atal are a raucous presence and serve to constantly annoy Malala and remind us that she is still an older sister.
The film succeeds when Guggenheim points his camera to the everyday mundanities that are hilarious, like Malala admitting that slapping her younger brother is actually a sign of her love, which we’ve all no doubt used as an excuse to tease siblings with! Malala is seventeen, so she’s dealing with a new school and the fact that being a class-topper in Pakistan isn’t the same in the U.K., where she’s disappointed in her 60s and 70s marks for Biology and Maths. She’s a high achiever and pushes herself, but it’s quite telling in one moment where she gets a bit judgemental towards her mother’s lack of education, which extends to social interactions. “My mother tells me to not look a man in the eye, and look down, but why should I? I should be able to tell him to his face.”
It’s these small moments that reveal a different side to Malala; a contrarian teenager behind the persona of the iconic activist. Guggenheim acknowledges the backlash to Malala, where people say she is a puppet of Ziauddin’s agenda against Pakistan. This is merely a footnote, which Ziauddin and Malala take pains to address. But you won’t get a whiff of any internal strife in the family or the image, because Malala and her father aren’t willing to dwell on that.
He Named Me Malala tries to shed new light on Malala Yousafzai’s journey, but it doesn’t go beyond the superficial. Perhaps in a few years, Malala’s life will be more fitting for a documentary about her internal quandaries with her role in the world, but Guggenheim does well in humanizing her and showing us a teenager who’s stepped up in the fight for for female empowerment.
He Named Me Malala releases in select theatres across Canada on October 9, 2015, and the USA on October 2, 2015. Check local listings for times and theatres.