Anyone with a passing knowledge of world news is familiar with the story of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani teenager who was shot by the Taliban as a result of her activism promoting education for girls and woman. That Malala is well-known and well-admired in the Western world presents a challenge to Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for “Superman”), the director who seeks to bring a unique take to her story in He Named Me Malala. In any story, dimension comes from the gray areas and ambiguity, and Malala’s tale of courage and heroism is fairly straightforward: she is exceptionally smart, brave, articulate, and those who attacked her are pretty unequivocally “bad guys.” There is no dark underbelly or secret past to exploit here, and although he passes up an opportunity to explore some of the complexity inherent in the story and its impact, Guggenheim does an effective job of bringing Malala’s inspiring narrative to life.
Perhaps because he knows that the story he’s telling is familiar to audiences, Guggenheim approaches the film in a non-linear way. He moves back and forth between present and past, from Malala at home to Malala as a world leader, from moments joking with family to moments of violence and terror. The documentary juxtaposes light scenes and dark ones, pivoting from Malala being teased over a possible crush on Roger Federer, to Malala and her father at the border of Syria and Jordan with a group of Syrian refugees. The dichotomy is so dramatic, it’s enough to give viewers whiplash, and it seems that’s the point.
The most uncomfortable dichotomy in the film is between Malala and her mother, Tor Pekai, though Tor Pekai is mentioned minimally in the film. Malala’s exceptionally close relationship with her father, Ziauddin, is a deeply explored strand of the film, but no one seems to know where her mother fits in Malala’s larger story. Because of continued threats from the Taliban, the Yousafzai family is living in England, and it becomes clear that Tor Pekai is homesick, with no support network, though she does try to learn English and make a life in her new home. Tor Pekai never seems unsupportive of her daughter or husband, but neither does she seem particularly relevant, and that’s a little unsettling. In a story about the importance of educating and empowering women, one of the central women seems strangely left behind. Ironically, the IMDB page for He Named Me Malala credits Tor Pekai as appearing as “himself” as opposed to “herself.” Guggemheim peeks at the impact that Malala’s acts of bravery have had on her whole family, but never fully examines the question.
Still, the film does add depth beyond the common knowledge about Malala. Early interactions with her charming brothers humanize Malala and add levity to a story that’s characterized by violence. Malala, like most teenagers, worries about school and grades and whether the other kids like her. Viewers come to learn more about Ziauddin’s activism and how it fed Malala’s, as well as how Malala came to choose her life of activism once the freedoms that had protected her and her community began to crumble one by one.
In an address to the United Nations featured late in the film, Guggenheim’s use of dichotomy comes full circle as Malala reminds the General Assembly, “I am the same Malala.” Before the shooting and after, in school and on The Daily Show, talking about dating and speaking out against Boko Haram; it’s all one Malala, and she is both normal and exceptional in turn.
He Named Me Malala is a solid encapsulation of Malala’s life and activism, and any viewer looking to understand why Malala is a household name will find it educational, enjoyable, and moving. Audiences can expect to learn more about Malala and see a different side of her, though the film is at its most engaging when it pokes at the more ambiguous fringes of the story, away from Nobel prizes and discussion with President Obama. It would have been a different, richer film if Guggenheim had decided to explore impacts more deeply. As it is, it succeeds in telling Malala’s story, and for many viewers, that’s likely to be enough.