If you see one documentary this year, just one, it should be He Named Me Malala. Part humanizing family portrait, part propaganda piece, the film is a fascinating and ultimately inspiring glimpse into the life of a world leader, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a miraculous survivor of extremist violence and an activist fighting for the right of young girls to obtain an education, who also happens to be a seventeen-year-old girl going to school, worried about her homework, her grades, and her family life. Crafted with a unique blend of documentary footage, archival footage, and painted animation, it transcends expectations in terms of what one might expect stylistically from a documentary, just as it educates and uplifts thanks to the remarkable young woman at its center, and her courageous ongoing fight for young women everywhere.
Director Davis Guggenheim (Waiting for ‘Superman’, An Inconvenient Truth) takes a non-linear approach to Malala Yousafzai’s story, hinting at the outset of the film at the violence visited upon her and her friends by the Taliban in 2013 as reprisal for her outspokenness, but not detailing it, its precursors or its aftermath until much later. Rather, Guggenheim starts audiences with the story behind the inspiration for Malala’s very name, how her father Ziauddin, an outspoken activist for youth education in his own right, came to give her that name and what it means to the both of them. Cameras follow Malala as she introduces audiences to her family members and her life living in exile in England, going to a private school surrounded by girls her age whose daily existences, revolving as they do simply around classes, boyfriends, and gossip, leave her feeling even more isolated. The film juxtaposes moments featuring Malala and her father traveling abroad to speak to girls in schools in Nigeria, or to volunteer with relief efforts for Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war there into neighboring Jordan, with moments where she’s talking about less-than-high marks on school tests and star athletes whose exploits she follows and who she may or may not have a crush on. And in key moments that depict her childhood growing up in the one-building school Ziauddin founded in their home village, or the months and days leading to the Taliban’s effort to permanently silence her, Guggenheim turns the narrative reins over to animation designer Jason Carpenter (The Renter), who brings the scenes to life in bold, vibrant, painted strokes that are evocative of both a child’s watercolor depictions of the world and ancient historical pictographs. The resulting hybrid film, made complete by archival footage covering Malala’s recovery from the Taliban attack to her meetings with world leaders and her historic speech at the United Nations, is as truly unique as its chief subject.
Now, there’s no getting around the fact that He Named Me Malala is a propaganda film, and that alone might potentially be a turn-off to movie goers seeking entertainment that’s less grounded in reality. But make no mistake: the primary message here, the primary intent of the film makers and the Yousafzai family, to all appearances is to rally support around their efforts to lead the fight for girl’s education around the world, to showcase why this cause was important to them long before the bloody incident that made Malala a figure known to the entire world for her courage and fortitude, and why it remains important to them, important enough to suffer ongoing threats to their lives.
Yes, the film can also certainly be viewed as an indictment of extremist elements in the Muslim world, as the Yousafzais make no secret of their belief that the Taliban and those like them have hijacked and tainted the name and meaning of Islam to those both within and outside of their faith. Because Islam and the extremist politics that dominate any conversation regarding the Middle East are such hot button topics in the media these days, it might be easy for Western audiences to simply characterize He Named Me Malala as “anti-Taliban” or “pro-Islam”, but to do so would be dismissive of the film’s more noble and humble aspirations. This isn’t just a movie for those who concern themselves with the politics of the Middle East and religious extremism. This is for anyone who believes that young people are entitled to an education, regardless of their gender or their faith. It’s a film for those who value our children and the future they represent.
What’s probably most striking about He Named Me Malala aside from its stylish approach to its storytelling is just how commanding a figure Malala Yousafzai really is at such a young age. Despite the physical limitations now upon her thanks to the injuries she suffered, she answers questions, tells stories, and makes speeches at all times with tremendous poise, eloquence, and thoughtfulness. Even when she’s at her most girlish, talking about how she handles her brothers, her love and admiration for her parents, or why she likes tennis star Roger Federer, there’s a self-awareness present in her bearing that’s simply remarkable for a teenager, even one who has experienced what she has. If you choose to see He Named Me Malala, no doubt you’ll come away from it admiring the young activist and looking forward to the great things she’s sure to accomplish in the future. But you’ll also be charmed by the warmth, intelligence, and heart of the teenage girl behind the public figure.
He Named Me Malala
Directed by Davis Guggenheim.
Running Time: 87 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements involving disturbing images and threats.