He Named Me Malala (Fox Searchlight, PG-13)

He Named Me MalalaWhat I can tell you is that He Named Me Malala made me want to read I Am Malala; you can take that for what you will.





He Named Me Malala 500

Native St. Louisan Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for ‘Superman’) has made a name for himself directing important, timely documentaries with interesting subjects, and yet he himself, on a technical level, is utilitarian at best. The result here is that his films are reliably worth seeing and essentially critic-proof, but it’s hard to imagine anyone ever getting very excited about him as a filmmaker.

His current important subject is Malala Yousafzai, the now-18-year old girl who stood up to the Taliban on the subject of a woman’s right for education, got shot for it (this when she was 15), and, once she recovered from her coma, continued (and continues, present tense) to stand up to them just as fearlessly as before. Last year she won the Nobel Peace Prize, and also her book I Am Malala, which this documentary is “inspired by,” has been a huge bestseller.

I probably don’t have to sell you on the worthiness of learning more about Malala’s story, but I am happy to report that here she is depicted as being as likable and impressive as she seems. Guggenheim makes a big play in juxtaposing the angsty teenage Malala (she’s worried about homework, grades, boys; she’s mean to her brothers) with the poised world leader Malala (she meets, and even stands up to, most of the most powerful men in the world; she is creating a movement in places like the Middle East and some African countries that haven’t previously valued educating women), and sometimes his tendency to alternate scenes between Teen Malala and World Leader Malala can get tiresome. But that’s a minor complaint in the long run.

Further, He Named Me Malala is probably Guggenheim’s best-directed film, heavy-handed juxtapositions aside. Quite a bit of the film’s running time is made up of animated versions of events, and these animations, limited in movement and rich in color, are an elegant workaround of things he can’t or won’t show as a filmmaker. Also, it’s a wise choice that he offers as much screen time to Malala’s family as he does, as it isn’t just Malala herself that is smart and interesting—her whole family is. Most especially is her charming father Zia, who the film leans toward crediting Malala’s steadfastness to, but also her mother and two brothers help fill in the blanks of how Malala got to be who she is.

When watching a documentary that was either based on a book or has a companion book, I can never decide if it’s a good sign or a bad sign when the film makes me want to read the book. Does that mean it caught my interest and made me want to learn more, or does it mean that it left big holes that I have to seek other mediums to fill in? What I can tell you is that He Named Me Malala made me want to read I Am Malala; you can take that for what you will. | Pete Timmermann

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