Film Reviews

TIFF Review: ‘He Named Me Malala’

TIFF 2015

Photo courtesy of TIFF.

He Named Me Malala
USA, 87 min.
Dir. Davis Guggenheim
Programme: TIFF Docs (International Premiere)

Malala Yousafzai says, “One teacher, one student, one book, and one pen can change the world.” But can one documentary?

Malala is an odd sort of celebrity after having earned global fame in 2012 after she was shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking out in support of a girl’s right to an education. A viral rallying point for an urgent topic, Malala’s survival remains an inspirational beacon for activists everywhere, especially since her experience inspired her to speak louder than before. Her story is well known, having been told in countless profiles, junkets, interviews, articles, and her book I am Malala. Count He Named Me Malala as another incarnation of her lore. It’s probably the most enjoyable version of her story.

Director Davis Guggenheim’s earnest portrait of the beloved Malala, arguably has more potential than most of its arthouse contemporaries do to inspiring large-scale change. This audience-ready doc packs ample spirit, accessibility, and celebrity. He Named Me Malala brings the teenaged Pakistani activist’s story to the masses in yet another form and appeals directly to the hearts of a wide audience. It seems poised to stir revolution.

New to the tale of Malala is the backstory behind her name, which Guggenheim presents in the film’s opening sequence. The story recounts her namesake, Malalai of Maiwand, an Afghan folk hero who inspired troops to fight the British before meeting a violent death. Malalai wasn’t even twenty when she died and Malala’s attack occurred at age fifteen. Guggenheim underlines the eerie fate that accompanies the decision of Malala’s father, Ziauddin, to name his daughter after such a tragic heroine. This context for Malala is Guggenheim’s greatest addition to the film, not particularly for the novel information it conveys, but for the beautiful animation it injects within Malala’s story.

The preamble of Malala’s name is the first section composed in hand drawn animation that captures the ineffable spirit of Malala and her father with its lyrical and nostalgic palette. These sequences, supervised by Jason Carpenter, largely fill in the visual gaps of the part of Malala’s story that precede her celebrity. They chronicle pivotal moments in Malala’s life such as her covert blogging efforts for the BBC at age 11, and they illustrate some turning points in Ziauddin’s career in which he found his voice. Each retrospective vignette looks back with compassion rather than anger. The animated progression of Malalai the folk hero, Malala the fighter, and Ziauddin the teacher, paints the characters with the same brush. It elevates Malala and her father to heroic heights.

Malala’s spunkiness makes the film an obvious crowd-pleaser and even the most cynical viewer will likely be touched by her courageous story and her wisdom beyond her years. At the very same time, however, said cynic might also note that the collective reverence for Malala makes her a difficult subject to tackle. One especially notable sequence sees Guggenheim ask Malala why she doesn’t like to talk about her suffering and she dodges the question shyly yet directly. He doesn’t press it, but he also doesn’t need to press it. Malala is partly a product of PR and the media, and her resolutely positive demeanour is essential for the brand’s success. Alternatively, the moment is a candid scene that captures the odd cultural tensions in which Malala finds herself: her image is largely a product of Western media, but she still holds some traditional values. Her modesty, moreover, shows that her selflessness is genuine: she can’t complain about her suffering because she’s fighting for girls facing worse pain.

He Named Me Malala acknowledges some of Malala’s detractors—interviewees call her a puppet for her father and a product of the media—but the film largely answers these charges with familiar episodes of her ushering change of the highest order by pledging solidarity for her sisters in Nigeria or by advising President Obama on the perils of drones. Other moments let Ziauddin answer the tougher questions, and he often responds eloquently and intelligently. He Named Me Malala gives Ziauddin ample credit in raising his daughter and shaping her mind. While the film doesn’t explicitly confront speculation that Malala’s voice and her father’s are the same, it admirably uses Ziauddin and Malala’s story to show how much one person can change the world if he or she encourages a daughter to be all that she can be. One particularly moving animated sequence sees Malala’s father add his daughter’s name to the family tree that omits the names of all previous female relatives.

He Named Me Malala sometimes treads hagiography as it presents a respectful account of Malala and Ziauddin and their strong relationship, but Guggenheim gives them both grounded and human. Malala is as faultless here as she is in mainstream media representations, so the film ultimately reiterates and reaffirms Malala’s status as a beacon of hope beyond reproach. Don’t mistake this comment for sarcasm, though, for the girl’s very innocence brought attention to her story in the first place and continues to do so. Add her youth and Nobel Peace Prize to the equation, and this eighteen-year-old warrior arguably seems to have surpassed her namesake. By sharing Malala’s story with the world in this open and accessible form, Davis Guggenheim’s film furthers Malala’s mandate to change the world one step at a time.

Reviewed at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.

He Named Me Malala opens in theatres beginning Oct. 2 from Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Read more about He Named Me Malala in the POV interview with director Davis Guggenheim!