Sometimes in documentary, a story is so good on its own that it’s as if the film doesn’t have to do much except avoid getting in the way of its subject. A movie about someone as extraordinary as Malala Yousafzai enjoys this advantage: we’re so eager to see her story told on screen that this gratitude for the film’s existence alone is enough to make it feel essential. Fortunately, He Named Me Malala goes above and beyond in its depiction of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate thanks to the skill of director Davis Guggenheim.
Malala’s background is likely well known to most people who are interested in the film, so its structure introduces the audience to Malala the person before it exposes us to Malala the Taliban-targeted attempted murder victim and global advocate for female education. This turns out to be a good impulse; it gives us an opportunity to see Malala the way she describes herself, as a normal teenage girl from Pakistan’s Swat Valley, with the exception that, she comes from a liberal family (if her family was more conservative, as she points out, she would still be in the Swat Valley, with two children of her own—a jarring reminder of her reality).
Much of the film’s early scenes consist of her family at home, treating us to moments indicating a typical dynamic she has with her siblings, two brothers who are more than willing to describe their celebrated sister’s transgressions. Sharing these scenes early on serve the purpose of defining Malala by who she is rather than what’s happened to her, and also give us a sense of the environment of love she comes from (“I slap you because I love you,” she playfully tells her cheeky little brothers).
Another purpose for these warm domestic scenes is to ease us into dealing with the horrific violence that Malala faced. So the film opens with a beautiful animated prologue describing the origins of her name, a gorgeous moving oil painting that depicts the history of her namesake, the 19th century Afghan hero Malalai, who became a folk hero for rallying local troops against the British. This is a beautiful, engaging mechanism that is then later repeated it the description of her attack at the hands of the Taliban. It didn’t occur to me while I was watching, but was pointed out to me after that this is likely a movie that will be shown to school children; these animated sequences seem like an ingenious way to explain the gruesomeness of this story without making it overly graphic. And indeed, they are, visually, the most beautiful sections of the film.
Emotionally, a great deal comes from the relationship between Malala and her father, Ziauddin. As a figure of the film, Ziauddin comes close to Malala in impressiveness. His own story about finding his voice, and the animated depiction of the “fire” he seeks to capture with his voice, the fire that his father could speak with, is marvellous. He receives significant credit for Malala’s activism, emphasized by the title, a line spoken by Malala: “He named me Malala, but he did not make me Malala.”
It’s a wonderful summation of a parent’s influence on a child, a statement on every parent’s wish that their offspring will inherit their best qualities, and even take them further than their parents could. This is expressed beautifully in words, and then bolstered by the animated depiction of Malala finding her voice as her father had done before her. Simply as a film about the relationship between a father and daughter, it’s lovely and profound.
Criticisms of Malala seem hard to come by, and it’s normal to be skeptical about a movie that praises its subject so unreservedly. She is not someone who a cynic (like myself) can make much sense of, coming off as so genuine, sincere, and inconceivably brave. Somehow, there is no trace of self-impressed teenage precocity in her, but an ordinariness that makes her utterly disarming. If the film lacks anything, it’s a clear resolution to how someone with such an extraordinary story, who continues to do meaningful and exceptional work on a global scale, remains relatable and likeable on a human level (something I felt couldn’t be accomplished in An Inconvenient Truth). It’s hard to fault it for that, though.
The easiest test to determine whether a film like He Named Me Malala succeeds is whether it’s worthy of its incredible subject. It not only offers a defining image of Malala herself, but also gives a clear impression of the family she comes from that helped shape who she is and what she’s made of herself. She and Guggenheim seem hopeful that this film can help kickstart a movement in support of education for women and girls, and once you get to know her and her cause, it’s impossible to not root for them both. As a vehicle for this movement, the film is powerful and encouraging.
He Named Me Malala delivers a film worthy of its subject, a moving documentary look at an extraordinary young woman.