Eighteen-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai is named for Malalai, the teenage folk hero who rallied Afghan fighters against British troops in the 1880 Battle of Maiwand. The eponymous subject of Davis Guggenheim’s documentary He Named Me Malala opens the film by narrating Malalai’s story against beautiful, painterly animation, devoting special care to Malalai’s rallying cry: “It is better to live like a lion for one day than to live like a slave for 100 years.”
Malalai was killed in that long-ago battle. Guggenheim’s film wastes no time in joining the principled and peaceful stand that Malala Yousafzai almost died for: a girl’s right to an education. The effort nearly ended in October 2012 after a Taliban gunman shot her in the head. With shocking suddenness, Guggenheim’s film jumps from the dreamlike opening animation to matter-of-fact news footage of Malala lying bloodied on a stretcher, as if to demonstrate that every heroic folk tale has roots in something terrible.
He Named Me Malala is a remarkable film wholly because of its subject. Malala is a real person, not a long-ago folk hero or a political talking point, and Guggenheim’s film presents a nearly complete portrait of her life. We meet her mother, father and brothers; we meet her friends and see the place where she grew up; and we get an unprecedented conversation with Malala herself, who’s nearly always framed in close-up.
Looking deeply into Malala’s brave face for 80-plus minutes as she tells her story would have been enough on its own, but He Named Me Malala gives us more. The documentary skillfully entwines two different stories: Malala’s continuing mission of educational advocacy, and the set of circumstances that put Malala in the path of that bullet. The former story is told through contemporaneous interviews and more-or-less standard documentary footage; the latter story is related through soft-focus abstract shots and the aforementioned pastoral animation. Each storytelling method takes its turn propelling the film.
It can all be a bit much. Guggenheim, who’s no stranger to righteous indignation (he also directed the public education documentary Waiting for “Superman” and the film adaptation of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth), often mashes down on the “change begins at home” button a bit too hard. (No documentary should end in a hashtag.) Thomas Newman’s admittedly lovely score sometimes steps in front of the story. And that animation, while smartly conceived and produced by Skip Lievsay and Jason Carpenter, begins to feel frivolous the third or fourth time it appears. Malala Yousafzai’s face is a study in courage; the gentle smile she manages while talking about terrible events tells a more interesting story than any animation ever could.
But the animation does give us one startlingly poetic image. When Malala’s father, educator and human rights activist Ziauddin Yousafzai, tells the story of how he overcame his stutter to become a public speaker, the animation first displays his words as black scribbles as he tries to get them out. Then, as his confidence grows and the passion wells up in him, he speaks a line of fire that becomes glowing script. Malala’s first speech is depicted in the same way. It’s obvious, but nonetheless affecting.
Shortly after He Named Me Malala opened the Telluride Film Festival in September, some critics derided the documentary as “an infomercial.” It’s easy to go that route, especially given some of Guggenheim’s storytelling choices. But that judgment misses the truth of Malala herself: She’s a teenager who roughhouses with her brothers, worries about dating and struggles with her homework. What she’s advocating for isn’t privilege or convenience, the stuff of which informercials are made. She’s only asking for the same basic right to an education that America’s kids can take for granted. She’s suffered dearly to be a normal teenager. The least we can do is grant her our attention for 87 minutes.
He Named Me Malala (PG-13): ★★★✩✩