He Named Me Malala

Review by Sophie Monks Kaufman @sopharsogood

Directed by

Davis Guggenheim

Starring

Malala Yousafzai Toor Pekai Yousafzai Ziauddin Yousafzai

Anticipation.

Malala Yousafzai could not deserve a documentary more.

Enjoyment.

Malala, her father and her family are enjoyable company.

In Retrospect.

We’re shown a swan gliding across a lake but not its legs kicking beneath the surface.

This cagey documentary portrait fails to do justice to its inspiring subject, Malala Yousafzai.

There are no words to carry the achievements of Malala Yousafzai. Once could describe how she, a schoolgirl, stood up to the Pakistani Taliban out of a belief that young women need education. She was punished for her bravery in the form of a bullet in the forehead in 2012. Her family relocated to England for her safety. One could list the world leaders with whom she has negotiated or mention that she won the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17. Locating the merit of Malala as a human, activist, thinker and film subject is easy. Locating the merit of Davis Guggenheim’s film about Malala on a journalistic or artistic basis is hard.

The film initially bimbles along with warmth and charm. Guggenheim has a clear rapport with Malala, bringing out the cheeky, giggly side of the teenager, whose past-times away from the global world stage include studying for her GCSEs and teasing her brothers. It becomes rapidly apparent that Malala’s father is both her biggest fan and biggest enabler. Contrasted against the violent misogyny of the Taliban in their homeland, his supportive traits gleam with blinding light. It is a pleasure to see the two together, interacting in relaxed familial ways yet with sophisticated political understanding. They are relatives and business partners and their business is… Wait, what is their business?

Guggenheim is so preoccupied with endearing himself to Malala that he shies away from going deep on either her personal identity or political vision. Malala doesn’t want to give herself up for a revealing self-portrait. She wants to protect and promote her charitable global image and broad political concerns. The narrative has all the nuance of an extended charity promo. This is particularly felt when Thomas Newman’s gently heartbroken score is used to exaggerate the hand-wringing emotionality of the world’s ills.

Someone as unique as Malala would have been more aptly served by more distinctive music, not to mention a film less defined by playing it safe. There are some gorgeous animation sequences that hint at playfulness and originality but for the most part Guggenheim is more in thrall to his subject than to his film.

Published 5 Nov 2015

Anticipation.

Malala Yousafzai could not deserve a documentary more.

Enjoyment.

Malala, her father and her family are enjoyable company.

In Retrospect.

We’re shown a swan gliding across a lake but not its legs kicking beneath the surface.

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