Short Films & Documentaries

Mr. Khan’s Review on He Named Me Malala (2015)

A review on American Documentary film, He Named Me Malala (2015) based on the Pakistani Human rights activist Malala Yousafzai. The film is directed by Davis Guggenheim and is distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures and National Geographic Channel.

+ Crew

  • Directed by Davis Guggenheim
  • Cinematography by Erich Roland
  • Music by Thomas Newman
  • Edited by Greg Finton, ACE, Brian Johnson and Brad Fuller
  • Produced by Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald and Davis Guggenheim
  • Produced by (Production companies) Imagenation Abu Dhabi FZ and Participant Media

+ Note

Under Guggenheim’s direction, we get to see Malala, not only as a role model for many young girls all over the world, but also in her home interacting with her family. She shares her personal experiences living in a foreign country while unintentionally serving as a “controversial figure” within her own homeland. By learning the ways of the West, Malala wants to also promote her own customs and religion, serving as the “tolerant” face of Islam. Her social activism includes travelling to different parts of the world such as Nigeria, Syria and many other war torn countries. The documentary includes short animated sequences, depicting the origin of her name and her past life in the Swat Valley. We also get to see many unseen family photographs of hers and also how her father’s activism has been a major influence on herself while stating that being a “female role model” was a decision of no one but herself.

 + Main Cast

  1. Malala Yousafzai
  2. Ziauddin Yousafzai

+ Plot

He Named Me Malala follows the life of young Malala Yousafzai who, while attending all girls school in Swat Valley in KP, Pakistan, was shot and injured by the Taliban. After recovery, Malala and her family (due to relentless threats from the Taliban) decided to stay in England while continuing on as a role model for Female education throughout the world. In 2013, Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and became the youngest recipient of the prestigious award. 

+ High Points

i – Malala is undoubtedly considered a divisive figure in Pakistan where the opinions reign strong from “the resistance of female empowerment” to “a propaganda piece for the Western Media”. In his documentary, Guggenheim tries to explore the “girl” behind the persona. What makes her happy, what does her family and her younger brothers mean to her, does she like living in the UK, what celebrities does she have a crush on. This undoubtedly “humanizes” Malala for the viewer and gives a chance for us to relate to her. In Spite of so much media coverage, Malala does come off as an extremely likeable young woman who not only wants to fight for Women’s rights but also live a normal, happy life with her family. No matter what your views are on her, no one can deny that every person on planet earth deserves that.

ii – The animated story sequences work quite well in conveying almost “fairy tale” like elements of storytelling. The tale of how she got her name and what it represents tied brilliantly to the overarching narrative of the documentary. The art style is also a subtle, crayonic portrayal of landscapes which blurs the line of fiction and reality.

iii – By interviewing the whole Yousafzai family, one gets to learn the roots of activism that stems from their blood. Perhaps in some way, fate had a strong hold in diverging Malala to this path of activism. But at the same time, Malala does not stray away from her past. Her stance on “peaceful Islam” and her being a role model for it is shared within her family (especially her father). Whether much truth was into this angle of documentary is anyone’s guess but was undeniably effective for the documentary in the long run.

iv – The music accompanying the visuals were subtle but melodic. Thomas Newman did a wonderful job in conveying the buried emotions of Malala on being forced to leave her homeland and pursue her goals in changing her own homeland from a distance.

 + Low Points

i – Going into this documentary, I was weary of the fact that how much of the different facets of truth Guggenheim is willing to depict in his documentary and the answer is an unfortunate; not many. The documentary plays it quite safe, never changing the subjects or status quo of the western media. Due to this safer route, the documentary does come off as bland and uninteresting in the long run. There is a short scene where Malala meets President Obama and the director asks Malala “Did you ask him about the drone strikes?” to which, she replies “Of course I did!”. Why was this not expanded upon? What is her view on this? Why was her hometown Swat Valley infested with conservative monsters like the Taliban? Should the western powers be held accountable for the rise in extremism in Pakistan? But most importantly, what does Malala think of all this? It’s nice to see Malala being a normal, teenage girl but what are her own political goals in Life? How does she believe that extremism can be eliminated in Pakistan or in the Middle East? Its all just surface level themes and ideas like “Tablian bad, Women’s Education good”. As a viewer, I didn’t really understand the ideology that Malala believes in. Only what she wants to accomplish. Sometimes the way is even more vital than the destination.

ii – Speaking of Hoggwash, there was unfortunately no political or historical backdrop given to any of the events mentioned in the documentary. How were the Taliban able to gain strong control in the KP region? Or perhaps mentioning why the KP region in Pakistan has always been a region of conflict. And most importantly, how the northern areas of Pakistan vastly differ from the majority of Pakistan. For the western audience, most cannot differentiate Pakistan from the Middle East so when they hear Tablian beheading people for speaking against them, attacking families who let their girls get proper education, they would most likely believe that the whole of Pakistan is engulfed in extremist war of ideologies. It’s a lazy, self fulfilling ideology of most Western media who are solely interested in war torn set pieces of the East without any real context or the bigger picture. Sadly, He Named Me Malala is another cog in the deranged western perception of Islam and the East.

iii – For around 90 min runtime, the film did not have enough material to follow through its runtime. 50 minutes in, I was checking my watch as the themes of Malala’s traumatic past became repetitive. The story itself is fantastic for film and well worth being told onscreen but perhaps He Named Me Malala would have served better as a television length documentary rather than a feature length one.

iv – He Named Me Malala was never egregious in any way but if you have kept up with the news, I don’t think you will learn much about her than you already know. The documentary is not ground shattering by any stretch of the imagination but after watching till the end, I did not feel rewarded at all.

+ Overall

Whether you see Malala as a role model for women all over the world or a figure of western media propaganda, He Named Me Malala depicts the human side of a young girl who wants to live a happy, meaningful life. But admittedly, the documentary could’ve been so much more than it ended up being.

Rate: 3.0 out of 5 stars