Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking out for girls’ education, is an unquestionably an inspiring activist. The youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, she published a book, “I Am Malala,” and has expressed a cogent desire for people to learn from her experiences. What may be most surprising is that she has forgiven the Taliban, the group responsible for shooting her in the head in 2009 — even though they have threatened to kill her if the current British activist were to return to Pakistan.
Guggenheim uses animation to tell part of Yousafzai’s story, including a fable of her namesake who spoke out during wartime in Afghanistan in the hopes of creating a better life for people. These sequences show past events — which could not be easily depicted otherwise — but stories of Malala’s father Ziauddin, who started a school that inspired his daughter, would perhaps have been more meaningful if they were recounted by him and his daughter.
The animation sequences also makes the real-life scenes of Malala being examined by a doctor more jarring, which results in an overall manipulative feel. Moreover, the incessant use of Thomas Newman’s emphatic score cudgels audiences throughout. However, when Guggenheim uses silence — as when he shows the harrowing pictures of the school bus where Malala was shot — it too feels like a contrivance. The narrative toggling back and forth also does the film no favors; it just prevents viewers from engaging with the subject more fully.
Guggenheim is at his best when he just lets Yousafzai speak for herself. He captures a few amusing scenes of her interacting with her family and playing games in their busy, loving home, or talking about the books she likes to read. These scenes clearly intend to humanize Yousafzai, in part by showing how the charismatic woman can act like a typical teenager — albeit one who does not dress in short skirts like her classmates. Nobody expresses distinction between her former life and the freer one she now lives better than Yousafzai herself. When she reveals that had she stayed in Pakistan, she would probably have two children by now, it is a powerful moment.
“He Named Me Malala” could have used more scenes along those lines. When Yousafzai gives an eloquent speech in the last few minutes of the film, emphasizing the power of knowledge to question and challenge authority, she’s an inspiring figure. Her humanitarian work, as evidenced by her efforts to help with education in Kenya and elsewhere, retains the impact that has catapulted her to fame.
But Guggenheim never digs deep enough into her mission about equality and education and its relation to poverty and oppression. Instead, he turns to Ziauddin for remarks about his daughter’s ideology, as if his insight does the trick. Conversely, when the movie does engage with accusations that Yousafzai is a puppet of her father’s greater agenda, the suggestion goes largely unanswered. One moment does stand out from this half-baked overview: Ziauddin adds his daughter’s name to the 300-year-old family tree, and explains hers is the first female name on the document.
Too much of the film is repetitive, showing that school is Malala’s “home” and that she has rebelled against traditional customs, without engaging these points further. The film explores women’s illiteracy (and unemployment) and Malala’s interest in returning to Pakistan — as well as the consequences of that act. But while Yousafzai is pressed by the filmmaker for not talking about her suffering — though she does explain her loss in certain ways — they eventually move on to another topics, such as statistics about schools being bombed, or the differences between Islamic and Western teenagers in regards to dating.
It’s a shame that Guggenheim’s slickly produced documentary examines such an important and fascinating story with such underwhelming results. To its credit, the film does prompt viewers interested in learning more about Yousafzai to read her book, and get involved via the film’s website and social media outreach, both of which should yield better results than “He Named Me Malala.”
“He Named Me Malala” premiered Friday at the Telluride Film Festival. It opens nationwide on October 2.