The anticipated opening day screening of the Telluride Film Festival is an event that journalists not only routinely attend, they usually race to their computers afterwards to deliver a cogent, but timely review. But with the walk-don’t-run and ho hum “He Called Me Malala,” pundits politely clapped and leisurely walked to their next screening, no one really compelled to review or be perceived as being uncharitable to a genuinely inspirational figure by proxy (conservatively, some thirty-something journalists saw it; five reviews exist on Rotten Tomatoes so far).
Davis Guggenheim’s documentary “He Named Me Malala” begins with an animated storybook tale of how young Malala Yousafzai was given her name by her father Ziauddin. It’s both a mythical and prescient story —she’s named after a legend about a young Afghani folk hero who sacrificed herself to inspire and save her village. It’s fatefully eerie considering Malala Yousafzai was infamously shot by the oppressive Pakistani Taliban in 2012 for speaking out against them, nearly died, but miraculously recovered and went on to become an internationally renowned advocate for female education and human rights causes. And it’s fitting, as we learn that Ziauddin set a strong example for his daughter about outspoken bravery, a thirst for knowledge, carving out your own identity, and the empowerment that comes along with discovering your voice and the courage of your own convictions.
But you know most of this because you’ve read Wikipedia and have a cursory understanding of news events over the last three years. And so if there are deeper insights to be found about Malala and her father beyond loving and enabling parents and a daughter who took their cues, they’re not really here. Also, if the sentimentality of this largely sweet story should be counterbalanced with another mood, that doesn’t really arrive either.
Guggenheim’s movie is largely content to be a would-be inspiring celebration of the young Nobel Peace Prize laureate. And while it’s hard to indict the movie for wanting to admire and honor this extraordinary girl, the movie loses its own inherent potency with a haphazard structure that jumps around far too much in time and a monotonous narrative about Malala overcoming oppressors to bravely speak out and inspire the world.
So yes, it’s hard to fault with “He Named Me Malala” for its impulse to act as a kind of glorified educational infomercial for all of Malala’s courageous exploits. She is bold, she is remarkable, she is also just an average girl who likes Brad Pitt and handsome soccer players. Malala is inspiring, no question. But anyone who knows even just the surface elements of her story — the struggle, recuperation and comeback as voice of change — will pretty much know and understand the full narrative presented in this thin documentary. “He Named Me Malala” dives deeper into the details, but fails to illuminate anything other than the idea that Malala is a remarkable girl who survived unspeakable actions.
“He Named Me Malala” purports to be a father and daughter story, but the parental section of the film eventually fades to the background as Guggenheim focuses on Malala’s resolve and accolades. While the “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Waiting for Superman” filmmaker has good intentions, and he can make the most of an inspirational moment or idea, he is very much enamored with the subject. Hearing Malala’s impassioned speeches about education for women as a basic human right is rousing stuff, but dialing up stirring, but familiar notes to underscore your admiration is about the only trick this movie has.
In many ways, “He Named Me Malala” is an aftermath movie, Malala and her family trying to cope and adjust to the world simply beyond her recovery. The family is extricated from the Swat valley in Pakistan for their safety, likely never to return, and so in Birmingham, England, all they really have is each other in a strange land and foreign culture that is not their own. And while this texture is nice and paves the way for humanizing Malala and her family, it feels included out of obligation instead of acting like crucial footage that makes or breaks the doc.
Even at 90 minutes in length — which feels more like two hours — ‘Malala’ suffers from serious repetition issues. It’s not that the subject can’t sustain that runtime (quite the contrary) but you can only hear the movie articulate how brave she was to speak out in the face of oppression with the same overcooked heart-swelling music so many times.
Malala Yousafzai is a very worthy Nobel Peace Prize laureate and simply being in the presence of her committed and passionate words is awe-inspiring. Her undeterred fearlessness in the face of extremists should be applauded, and she is rightfully a model for young women around the planet. But ultimately, this amazing girl is underserved by an unremarkable, congenial and safe portrait. It’s hard to begrudge a filmmaker that doesn’t draw outside the lines for a special subject like this, but at the same time, it’s hard to recommend the documentary other than to suggest it should be shown to kids of all ages in schools everywhere. [C+]