If you’ve ever seen Malala Yousafzai speak, you most definitely consider yourself a fan. The now-18-year-old Pakistani activist who was shot in the head by the Taliban for fighting for girls’ right to an education, is nothing if not immediately, supremely charming. And indeed, He Named Me Malala showcases her charm and likability supremely well. The documentary is littered with small moments that will undoubtedly make you smile. The best parts of the movie are these glimpses of this young hero at home, her “regular girl” life: playfully criticizing her brothers, talking about her bad grades, trying not to blush while looking at pictures of cute cricket players online— these are the moments that make this movie more than worth watching. Everything else, unfortunately, feels like a missed opportunity.
The documentary strives to find a balance between the two Malalas: the young hero who risked and almost lost her life, and the regular girl. As I’ve said, the movie is a beautiful portrait of the latter. But when it comes to the larger issues, the filmmakers approach her life with such broad strokes that you’re likely to feel unfulfilled. Going into the movie, you likely know at least a bit about Malala’s achievements and struggles. She’s done countless interviews (you’ve probably seen her on The Daily Show, and Jon Stewart is an unabashed admirer), she’s won the Nobel Peace Prize, and she’s come out with her own autobiography (which inspired this movie), titled Malala. This young woman is an incredible human. Growing up in Taliban-ruled Pakistan, she refused to accept that girls in her country were worth less than boys, women less than men, and that she would not be allowed to pursue an education. At the age of 16, members of the Taliban boarded her school bus and shot her. She was rushed to a hospital in England, where her life was saved. The Taliban has said that if she ever returns to Pakistan, she will be killed, so her family now lives in Birmingham. But while these events of Malala’s life are presented in a well laid out, engaging way, like any simple biography blurb, the more personal details are glazed over. Malala’s adjustments to life in the West are hinted to be less than easy, though they are at least touched upon more than those of her mother, the only uneducated member of the family. Her mother’s adjustment is shown to have been hard, and I wanted to hear so much more. But like many other subjects in the movie, we get only the most cursory glance at her struggle.
He Named Me Malala shows us scenes from the last few years of her life, since moving to England: how she has traveled to Kenya with her father to build schools and fought to bring attention to the more than 200 Nigerian girls kidnapped back in 2014. It also attempts to explain how Pakistan became a place ruled by such puritanical ideologues. It also dips often into a different story: that of Malala’s father. While her memoir is titled simply Malala, the documentary places emphasis on the family context that helped create and nurture such an incredible young girl. And yes, Ziauddin Yousafzai is an incredible man: an educator, an activist, a feminist, he named his daughter after Malalai of Maiwand, an Afghani folk hero who died leading a rebellion. But beyond the much deserved but broadly painted praising of Ziauddin and his daughter, director Davis Guggenheim touches on some larger questions, enough to pique our interest, only to run quickly from his own narrative. He plants the seeds of criticism of Malala and her family— apparently there are a number of people, especially back in Pakistan, even her hometown area of Swat, who believe she is no more than a publicity stunt, or that her father uses her as his own mouthpiece. Guggenheim begins a conversation with Malala, and separately with her father, about how a man could name his daughter after a dead rebel— is that not condemning her to a life of struggle? Did he “create” Malala, or did he just work to foster her sense of self-confidence and power? These questions are only posed, never explored. Instead, Guggenheim relies on an overly protrusive Thomas Newman score and beautiful but fairly unnecessary watercolor animations to force an emotional journey he never needed to force. Malala Yousafzai is an incredible human being. When she speaks, it’s impossible not to get caught up in her charm and inspired by not only her words, but her energy and radiance. If only Guggenheim had been confident enough in his subject to let her exist honestly in front of us, this could have been an infinitely more powerful story. As is, the movie fell short of capturing the whole beauty of this young inspiration.