Even before 2012, when 15-year-old Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban, she was producing blog posts for the BBC lamenting the exclusion of girls’ education in her homeland of Pakistan. In director Davis Guggenheim’s new documentary, “He Named Me Malala,” the mission and message of the world’s youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner are reaffirmed, though reviews claim limited insight is given into the mind of the international icon.
Filmed over 18 months, “He Named Me Malala” premiered to a crowd of 500 people at the 42nd Annual Telluride Film Festival on the weekend. The 87-minute long documentary bounces between Malala’s present-day life in Birmingham, England, and the events that led to the October 2012 attack in which Malala and two other schoolgirls were shot on a bus in her native Swat Valley. The non-linear fashion in which the story is told – considered a “troubling” style choice by some – is embellished with animation from artist Jason Carpenter, which opens the film with a sequence depicting the 19th century heroine for whom Malala was named.
Old news footage of Swat and Malala in an English hospital after the shooting are included, as well as “warm, intimate” footage of the newly relocated family, including her two scene-stealing, charming younger brothers. Malala’s mother, Toor Pekai, who does not speak English and is described as “ill at ease” by Variety, admitted to Guggenheim that she misses her family and community in Pakistan. Considerable attention is given to Malala’s father, Ziauddin, the “He” of the film’s title, who encouraged his daughter’s education advocacy and inspired her to speak out by overcoming a slight speech impediment himself. Reviews heavily praise scenes of domesticity that involve the whole family, depicting moments that “most help convince you Malala might just be as regular a person as she insists she is, rather than some sort of second coming.”
During a few moments of downtime, Variety reports, Guggenheim has fun trying to get Malala to admit to a little crush on Pakistani cricketer Shahid Afridi. And another on Brad Pitt. These are among the film’s “most revealing – and winning – moments,” writes the Guardian.
In her more recognizable public persona, the unflappable young woman is shown campaigning for education around the world: speaking in Kenya, then in Nigeria, where she pushes the president to do more to help recover the nearly 300 schoolgirls captured by Boko Haram in 2014. Malala and her family meet with President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, and influential celebrities like Oprah. Her famous address to the United Nations is shown, as is footage of Malala teaching a classroom of children about the rise of Adolf Hitler. Her bravery and commitment to the education of girls grows with her age and is as impressive as ever, even when set to a score described as “over-emphatic” by The Hollywood Reporter and “musical overkill” by Variety.
What reservations exist about the film arise from a desire to learn more about the girl and less about the icon, and a concern that the treatment of its inarguably impressive subject borders on hagiography. Some aspects of her backstory could have been filled out more, too. The rise of militant Islamist Fazlullah, the man who ordered Malala’s assassination, is explained, but her story is not told within a greater political context.
In a Q&A session that followed the premiere, Oscar-winning Guggenheim explained that his goal was not to tell a global political tale, but rather attempt to shed lights on the “bravery of this father and daughter,” with the belief that “it would be good for my daughter and your daughters.” Malala, now 18 years old, joined the Telluride conversation via video chat, where she revealed that the “happiest day” of her life only came recently, when she received high marks on her GCSE exams.
“Yes, I have a Nobel Peace Price, but this time I felt I really achieved something through my hard work,” she said, to a roar from the crowd.
Guggenheim’s documentary argues that beyond the deep influence of her activism-minded father, Malala is an independent thinker who makes her own decisions. “I chose this life,” she says. Wherever those choices lead, the world – including her former countrymen in Swat Valley, shown calling for another bullet in her head – will be watching.
“He Named Me Malala” premieres worldwide in October.