Film Review: He Named Me Malala

on October 12, 2015, 7:40pm

Have you seen the Malala Yousafzai Daily Show interview? She’s an amazing person and a fantastic subject, with such a passionate voice. Yousafzai’s deep and meaningful true story about her struggle against the Taliban is shocking, but she brings with her a message for world peace, gender rights, and the value of education. The teen activist doesn’t so much grab our attention as she commands it. She speaks in such spirited rhetoric that it seems like a really great documentary could be tailor-made for her.

It’s a shame, then, that He Named Me Malala will not be regarded as that great doc.

No, Davis Guggenheim’s heart-tugger will be remembered as that poorly constructed and hokey doc that promises its viewers a glimpse into the “real” Yousafzai, but any meaningful characterization happens just a little too late. Say hello to Malala Yousafzai, up close, out of depth, and ultimately, only at a glance.

He Named Me Malala is the first-person account of Yousafzai’s causes, actions, and personal struggle. It’s a telling of the last several years of her life, from her ascent to promise in Pakistan to her recent nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize and appearances in the global political scene.  We see how she anonymously fed the BBC stories of academic disparities in her home country. We see her travel from Kenya to Nigeria to America to London, spreading her word of tolerance and fairness. We see the young activist tease siblings, worry about grades, and share fondness for her family’s courage. And yet it’s a complete yet strangely incomplete experience at best. Guggenheim patches the film together as a series of moments, as the previously mentioned happenings in Yousafzai’s life become nothing more than static noise after a point.

He Named Me Malala is the latest in Guggenheim’s social action documentaries. He won an Oscar for his probing, laser-focused, and still scarifying An Inconvenient Truth. It took care of its subject, Al Gore, by letting the former Vice President speak with clarity and sincerity. Guggenheim has dabbled in a number of big-idea works of varying length, helming the pro-charter school Waiting for ‘Superman’ and creating President Obama’s 2012 convention film. He’s a man with obvious interest in and affection for what he chronicles, but his work here can be characterized as unclear at best.

Consider how Guggenheim intertwines the narratives of Yousafzai’s etymology: her upbringing in Pakistan, her history of rabble-rousing as influence, struggles with stardom, and her recovery from an attempt on her life. It’s grand stuff, a story perhaps too great for a teenager to bear the burden of, but she strives and survives, speaking to the importance of rights and education. The points are so simple, yet Guggenheim disrupts every moment with his patchy non-linear narrative. He undercuts the heart of the matter: Yousafzai’s words and actions. There’s never a real moment to stop and appreciate the social imperatives. Guggenheim instead opts for some sort of celebritante highlight collage, with brushwork re-enactments and cameos from the likes of Bono and Hilary Clinton. All the while, he glues the feature together with a distracting and insincere Thomas Newman score. The movie’s flat, desperate for a tone, and at its worst, it’s sickly sweet.

Best intentions for a blow-hardy cry, the film constantly reminds the viewer of Yousafzai’s momentousness without showing enough. He Named Me Malala never truly considers the fruits of her labors, just the long-winded historical prophecies and awards heaped on her. When two, maybe three minutes of Yousafzai speaking out in Pakistan are shown, it’s breathtaking. She’s a firebrand. Then she’s cut short as the film lingers on five, probably ten minutes of Yousafzai in the hospital, recovering. It’s news footage and leaves you wondering who in their right mind would place a camera in a hospital to watch a person be rolled to surgery?

Simply put, the film just doesn’t work. Yet a better understanding and appreciation can be achieved from that Daily Show piece, any number of videos of her speeches online, or the book by which the film is inspired, I Am Malala.

A YouTube marathon of talks and presentations are in order and of more value.


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