Film Review: He Named Me Malala (USA, 2015)

If you know anything about Malala Yousafzai, you would know that her story is not necessarily one of happiness, but one of suffering, struggle, but most of all inspiration. It is the powerful character and true story of this now 18-year-old girl that dominates the character-driven documentary He Named Me Malala.

The documentary is directed by Davis Guggenheim (director of An Inconvenient Truth) and based on the novel I Am Malala, written by Malala Yousafzai herself and co-written by journalist CHristna Lamb. After speaking out in favour of girls’ education in her home country Pakistan, Malala was shot in the head by the Taliban. She miraculously survived but has not remained silent in her campaign to bring education to girls across the world. In comparison to the novel, there is a more obvious focus on the relationship between Malala and her father Ziauddin Yousafzai, even down to the title of the documentary.

The title choice is questionable, both before and after watching the film. He Named Me Malala. The male action is first, making her passive, which seems a little contradictory in this tale. The reasoning for this only becomes clear the end of the documentary, but by this point it seems a bit late. The filmmaker has tried to add deeper layer to the story with a connection to the somewhat mythical figure Malalai, but it wasn’t executed particularly well. From the beginning it is clear that links are being made between Malala and Malalai, an Afghan heroine who raised her voice during battle, was shot and died as a result of her words. These parallels between Malala and Malalai are interesting but the link attempted did not work so well. Perhaps it was an attempt to emphasise that while her father names her Malala, she embodied the idea of Malala herself. Though for a story so powerfully about the female educative experience, the title really should have been chosen differently.

Names aside, don’t expect to sit there without a few tears – and don’t expect them to disappear any time soon. You will feel a sense of pride for this young girl you have never met from the beginning. The story is always so truthful and told from a place of earnest desire to bring about change. This was indeed the director’s aim, to inspire, though at the very end the magic of the film was somewhat ruined by a call to action on social media with a hash tag.

During the film, snapshots of normal family life and sibling tussles were a great way to provide the reality of the Yousafzai tale, especially charming interviews with Malala’s brothers Khushal and Atal and her mother. These encounters with daily life also helped to juxtapose the difference between their life in England and with the fear-filled life that they had in Pakistan.

To explain events in the past artistic representations were beautifully created in conjunction with the oral narrative provided by Malala and Ziauddin. It helped to drive the documentary forward and make it more interesting than simply returning to the faces of the orators again and again and helped to intersperse the serious with humour. However, this did mean the flow of the entire documentary was a little jumpy, especially with the addition of archival footage, so the narrative could have been improved with stronger connections between the past and present.

All in all, the film is worth seeing to hear Malala’s story directly from her. The documentary itself could have been crafted more carefully but Malala’s story will inspire and excite you.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

He Named Me Malala is released in select cinemas on Thursday, 12th November