DIR: David Guggenheim • PRO: Davis Guggenheim, Laurie MacDonald, Walter F. Parkes • DOP: Erich Roland • ED: Greg Finton, Brad Fuller, Brian Johnson • MUS: Thomas Newman • CAST: Malala Yousafzai, Ziauddin Yousafzai, Toor Pekai Yousafzai
“It was not a man that shot Malala, but an ideology,” states Malala’s father, Ziauddin, about three-quarters-way through the film.
When the Taliban targeted Malala Yousafzai in 2012 for daring to speak up in favour of education for girls they had aimed to silence her, and her message, forever. Ironically, this extreme act of cowardly violence only proved to spur Malala into the international consciousness. Since her miraculous recovery the extraordinary 18-year-old has dedicated her life to seeking equal education opportunities for girls and women around the world. Between meeting world leaders and winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala is a busy young woman. Director Guggenheim clearly seeks to highlight Malala as, first and foremost, a human being yet the audience is distinctly kept at arm’s length. Unanswered questions hang heavily over this otherwise uplifting account of one girl’s bravery. As the film continues, it becomes apparent that we are not being given the full picture.
The film’s opening sequence depicts the tale of an Afghan folk-hero named Malalai, who fought against oppression and was shot dead as a result. In a strange act of faith, this story inspired Ziauddin and Tor Pekai Yousafzai to name their first born daughter Malala, whose own fame is now edging on the side legend. Malala’s father seems to have been marked her out as different from the first, most noticeable in their strong connection. He comments that from the moment of her birth, they were like “one soul in two bodies.” Passionate about the power of education, Ziauddin set up his own school in Swat Valley, Pakistan, and it was here that the seeds of learning were planted in Malala’s mind. But with the rise of the Taliban came the decline of women’s rights and thus, the stage was set for events that would propel Malala to the almost saint-like status applied to her today.
Guggenheim’s skill as a storyteller is best utilised in the animated sequences of the film, which succeed in conveying both beauty and emotion. Subtle indications from the director also hint that, despite a comprehensive account of her life, only the surface is being scratched when it comes to getting to know the real Malala. For all her intelligence and wisdom that defies her years, Malala is still just an ordinary girl who went through an immense trauma, forced her from her home and the life she knew. How she has dealt with the emotional aspects of these events is never explored. When Guggenheim asks her directly about her suffering, Malala blanks him. Other questions remain untouched upon but one thing is made abundantly clear: Malala, and to an extent her entire family, are caught between the traditional culture that they left behind and the progressive ideals that they strive to uphold. This can be seen in small tell-tales, such as Malala’s desire to wear a headscarf and longer skirt despite attending an all-girls school in Birmingham, England, where the family now resides. Old ways die hard, even for the most forward-thinking of people.
He Named Me Malala is not, perhaps, the in-depth account that many would have hoped for, but it is a warm and touching film all the same. At times a bit-heavy-handed with its message, the film offers us a glimpse into the how and why that made Malala a household name. Maybe some time in the future, when she has had more time to heal and reflect, Malala will share with the world a more unflinching look into the challenges that shaped who she is. Until then Guggenheim’s documentary is still worth a watch, even if just to plant more questions in the audiences head.
87 minutes (See IFCO for details)
He Named Me Malala is released 6th November 2015