On October 9, 2012, a Taliban gunman shot 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai in the head. A targeted act of violence, the assassination attempt had been brought on by years of speaking out against the radicalized group and a steadfast refusal to back down. The courageous foresight of this young girl, so determined to become educated in a world full of kids railing against going to school, became a beacon of hope for women everywhere. Taking on a larger-than-life narrative, Malala’s story exploded around the globe — candlelight vigils were held, and prayers were said for a quick recovery. A week later, she woke up.
Malala has become a worldwide symbol for girls struggling for rights to education and safety. He Named Me Malala deconstructs her influence on a world she does not fully understand yet gracefully tolerates. Director Davis Guggenheim follows Malala as she tours the globe on endless press junkets, book signings, mission trips and meetings with incredibly powerful world leaders. He gives father Ziauddin Yousafzai room to explore the immense pride he has for his likeminded daughter, painting a picture — often literally — of a lifelong love for the most important person in his life.
Guggenheim accentuates interviews with Malala and her father through intercut sequences of watercolor animations. Inviting a sense of wistful fantasy, these interruptions seem pointed at young viewers desperate to understand something so unbelievably foreign. Several of these scenes center on the Yousafzai clan’s ability to “speak fire” to crowds, yet the fantasy of animation distances them from their inane ability. The most powerful moments of the documentary come when Malala is given the opportunity to speak directly to the camera about her ideas, as she is a remarkably compelling orator able to calmly deliver eye-opening platitudes with the sincerity of a woman thrice her age.
So much of He Named Me Malala seems to be geared towards children, but perhaps more interesting is how the film views its titular subject. Despite the autobiography and worldwide adoration, Guggenheim knows that Malala is only a child, and for every moment of mature stoicism, the director makes valid youth-affirming counterpoints. Interviewing her little brothers — under their sister’s watchful eye — Guggenheim gets a closer look at Malala’s home life and deciphers what it must be like to have such an odd brand of fame at a comparatively young age. Unlike child stars around the globe, Malala’s influence reaches farther than a typical screaming pre-teen audience. She confronted Barack Obama on drone strikes and Goodluck Jonathan about keeping his presidential promises, but she cannot imagine asking a boy out on a date. Her measured, succinct answers to massively complicated geopolitical issues are at an odd juxtaposition to her giggling playfulness when challenged by her younger brothers. Malala has a Nobel Peace Prize and spends hours every night on biology homework. She adores A Brief History of Time yet struggles on physics tests because she is busy comforting Syrian refugees as they cross the border into Jordan. With such an incredible weight resting on this young woman’s shoulders, her refusal to bend to the pressure is as extraordinary as it is inspiring.
Despite Guggenheim’s asymmetrical approach, Malala’s unquestionable bravery and youthful idealism shine through. A passion for learning transformed into a life-affirming cry for freedom, the story of Malala Yousafzai has been told many different ways, but this is undoubtedly just the beginning of something far greater.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.