Try as it might to turn the teen activist's life into a syrupy fairy tale, this documentary lets Malala Yousafzai's charm and spirit shine
Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Pakistani activist who survived a near-lethal attack by the Taliban in 2012, was named after an Afghan folk hero called Malalai of Maiwand, who martyred herself in leading the Pashtun army against British forces in 1880.
The former's father, Ziauddin, is the He in Davis Guggenheim’s soft-focus documentary, He Named Me Malala, and was certainly the first person to shape her destiny – he’s an educational activist in his own right.
When Malala, at age 17, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, her critics in Pakistan, including the editor of their Observer newspaper, decried the award, calling her a stooge for the West and mere puppet for her father. "Nothing but a girl."
Malala isn’t having this, of course. “My father only gave me the name Malala,” she says sagely towards the end. “He didn’t make me Malala. I chose this life.”
Surviving a bullet wound to the head, which has cost her mobility on the left side of her face, has transformed Malala’s public profile and given this brave campaigner for the educational rights of young girls a more global platform to speak out.
Whether the trauma has changed her outlook, in any way, is the type of question Guggenheim’s film is a little too gauzy to ask. It plays up her modesty, her rapid wit, and hops on tour with her to Kenya, Nigeria, and the US talk-show circuit.
Malala’s profound charm is her secret weapon and the film’s not-so-secret one. Her feisty relationship with her younger brothers is adorable. In truth, almost everything is adorable – true of the animated sequences filling in her past, which have a gossamer, storybook loveliness. Thomas Newman’s music goes much too far in this coddling direction, slathering the whole movie in unnecessary feel-good syrup.
And yet, Malala herself – her beguiling mix of bashfulness and confidence – keeps pulling you back in. Guggenheim makes her blush and cover her mouth with his Oprah-ish probing about her favourite sportsmen – Roger Federer does well – and the idea of her having a boyfriend, which she thinks isn’t possible yet.
These are crude tactics, but the personality they uncover is something to be protected and cherished. At times, He Named Me Malala may feel more like a rousing campaign video than a film with its own distinctive point of view, but the validity of her vital crusade – and by extension, the film’s practically short-circuit appeal to your heart and gut – is tough to argue with.
*This review was amended on November 13, 2015. The original version incorrectly described Yousafzai as Palestinian; she is from Pakistan.