WRITTEN REVIEW – He Named Me Malala (2015)
He Named Me Malala
Directed by: Davis Guggenheim
Written by: N/A
Starring: Malala Yousakzai & Ziauddin Yousakzai
Music: Thomas Newman
Release Date: November 6th 2015
Despite only being 18 years old, Malala Yousakzai from Pakistan has become world famous due to her political activism against the Taliban in her country as she campaigns for all children to have an education. This all started when the BBC collaborated with Malala and her father Ziauddin to start an anonymous online blog to inform unaware people about the activities and the activities of the Taliban to suppress the population and bomb schools. When Malala went public with her activism she was shot in the head on a school bus at the age of 15 but managed to recover and now lives in England as there are threats that she will be shot again if she ever returns home.
How can you mess up a movie about that?
This life-affirming documentary is brought to us from director Davis Guggenheim, one of the most well-known and acclaimed documentary filmmakers in recent memory thanks to hits like ‘An Inconvenient Truth‘ and ‘Waiting for Superman‘ (the former won the Academy Award for “Best Documentary” and the latter was considered one of the bigger snubs at the 2011 Academy Awards). ‘Waiting for Superman‘ focused on the theme of education which Malala feels incredibly strongly about, so it would seem that Davis and Malala are a fit for each other. But is the end result an engaging documentary or does it run into the risk of being self-aggrandising?
I explained a lot of the story in the first paragraph so I won’t elaborate so much here except to say that ‘He Named Me Malala‘, despite being named after one person mainly focuses on Malala and her father, Ziauddin. The Yousakzai family, when Malala was very young, owned several schools in Swat Valley (NorthWest Pakistan) meaning that Malala spent a lot of her time in these schools which is where her love of education stemmed from. The documentary follows her and her father’s story up until Malala’s acceptance of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, which she co-won with Kailash Satyarthi who is also a children’s rights advocate, but hailing from India.
While the documentary utilises archive footage of Malala from 2007 to the present day, along with interviews with her friends and family, its most unique aspect is the use of gorgeous watercolour animations where no footage exists of certain events, like Ziauddin starting his first school, the birth of Malala as well as the story of Afganistan folk-hero, Malalai of Maiwand, whom Malala was named after.
Malalai of Maiwand is said to have fought in the Battle of Maiwand in 1880 where Afghan Warriors were fighting Britain and Indian troops. But when the Afghan troops started to retreat, Malalai climbed to the top of a nearby mountain and rallied the troops together, convincing them to join the fight. While the Afghan troops were victorious in the fight, Malalai was shot and killed, the story of which is gorgeously re-told through the unique, 2-D animations style in ‘He Named Me Malala‘.
Hmm, a woman named Malala/i publically spoke on behalf of her people to encourage them to rise up against the enemy only to be shot? And now you can see why the story of Malala is oddly prophetic.
While the movie’s credits say that it’s inspired by Malala’s book “I Am Malala”, the title-change of ‘He Named Me Malala‘ may seem odd, but watching the movie you’ll see where its intentions lie. Not only in the added emphasis of Malala’s father in the movie, but also due to the power words can have as emphasised by the documentary. In the water-colour animations, whenever a character speaks with great wisdom, truth or conviction, it’s treated like a mystical power. Whether it’s Ziauddin talking about his father Rohul Amin and how inspiring his speech was, to Ziauddin reminiscing about trying to give speeches despite his stammer, to the Taliban using the radio to intimidate and inform their population, to Malala’s speech being such a threat that the Taliban tried to kill her over it, words are a powerful force even when it’s just a name being given to someone like Malala.
But ‘He Named Me Malala‘ still portrays its central figure as just an ordinary person who argues with her younger brothers, struggles with chemistry exams and looks at photos of Brad Pitt, Cristiano Ronaldo and the Pakistan Cricket team on Google (she’s clearly a woman of taste).
While ‘He Named Me Malala‘ tells the inspirational tale of Malala’s rise to fame, her assassination attempt and continued success, at 88 minutes long it feels like a cliff-notes re-telling of the story. And with such a short length, it feels like ‘He Named Me Malala‘ is a TV-length documentary that’s been given a theatrical release (which it kinda is as this movie was produced with National Geographic televised exclusivity in mind). Obviously since Malala is only 18 years old there’s not a huge amount of her life that can be told on film, but even then it feels like the movie is missing out an awful lot of key information.
For example, the movie dedicates around 20 seconds to quick interviews where people in Pakistan (not related to the Taliban) are saying how they don’t like her, or that they feel like she’s speaking her father’s words. Then the negativity is never brought up again. Why don’t they like Malala? It’d be interesting to hear this other side, but they get brushed off incredibly quickly. It feels so out-of-place to have 20 seconds of uninformed negativity in a documentary like this.
The movie also criminally glosses over how Malala got started in her activism in the first place. There’s a short montage of Malala sending her accounts to the BBC under the pseudonym Gul Makai to protect her identity. But how did the BBC contact her in the first place? How did she get involved? What were the sequence of events that led to her addressing the press face-to-face for the first time and how were the anonymous blogs received? ‘He Named Me Malala‘ is only 88 minutes long so it’s not like these details couldn’t have been included should the documentary feel over-stuffed, especially since that detail feels vital to showing how others could potentially speak out against injustices through the power of words which is what this documentary is all about. That would have been much better than telling people to visit a website or use a hashtag like ‘He Named Me Malala’ does during the end credits.
Also, while I don’t think ‘He Named Me Malala‘ could/should incorporate the entire history of recent middle-eastern conflicts, I think it could have set the stage better in regards to what the Taliban were enforcing and just what Malala is fighting against. It feels very one-sided in regards to information. “Malala is speaking out against the Taliban!”. Great…who are they and what are they doing? “….Malala is speaking out against them and she’s incredible!”.
While ‘He Named Me Malala‘ does a great job at humanising its central figures, it does sometimes feel like Davis Guggenheim is a bit too in love with the subject matter and Malala as a singular entity as well as her relationship with her father. The documentary is a great father-daughter movie, but it feels like many other aspects of this story fall by the way-side, including the fact that the Nobel Peace Prize Malala won ALSO went to another figure campaigning for the same rights. Malala’s mother Tor Pekai also has very little presence throughout the documentary. While this can be chalked up to her not having a great grasp of English, there are numerous interviews with other people in this documentary that are subtitled, so the language-barrier is clearly not an issue.
Though, full credit to the documentary for also highlighting Kainat Riaz and Shazia Ramzan; two survivors who were caught in the crossfire during Malala’s assassination attempt in October 2012.
‘He Named Me Malala‘ is fortunate in that it’s working off an incredible template and true story as Malala Yousakzai is a brilliant subject for a documentary like this. It’s inspirational, life-affirming and helps demonstrate the best in humanity while also acknowledging that it came from a very dark place from a misrepresented culture. However, due to its own self-inflicted, short run-time of 88 minutes, a lot of key details and context is left out of what is an incredibly important, relevant topic as well as missing the voices of other significant people. But the striking watercolour interludes and the gorgeous Thomas Newman score help to bring it together as a gripping documentary that, while too in love with its central figure at the behest of everything else, still stands strong with its righteous cause.
I give ‘He Named Me Malala‘ 3 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 11th Nov 15