At one point during fluffy documentary character study He Named Me Malala, an anonymous Pakistani civilian accuses seventeen-year-old activist Malala Yousafzai of being an unthinking mouthpiece for her diplomat father, Ziauddin: “I think it’s a publicity stunt.” This despite Malala’s actions, which are pretty unquestionably heroic: She won the Nobel Peace Prize after publicly condemning the Taliban for discouraging Pakistani girls from attending public schools — and after she was shot in the face for so daring.
But — ironically — director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for “Superman”) gives Malala’s most unkind skeptics just such reason to be dickishly cynical, mythologizing her actions and downplaying what makes her truly commendable: that she remains optimistic, and continues to criticize the Taliban, even knowing they still want her dead.
Malala’s activism and pre-Nobel life are vaguely represented through incurious interviews and uninformative animated flashbacks that say nothing about Malala’s feminist philosophy and only briefly excerpt her moving speeches. Instead, Guggenheim likens Ziauddin to Malala and emphasizes the symbolic meaning of her name, which derives from that of an Afghan folk hero.
Guggenheim’s failure to follow up on touchy subjects isn’t surprising, given that he generally doesn’t seem to take Malala seriously, as we see in the scenes where he quizzes her about why she’s shy about dating boys.
More importantly, when Guggenheim does ask Malala difficult questions, like why she has publicly forgiven the men who shot her, he doesn’t follow through with queries about her religious faith or understanding of political issues. He Named Me Malala may encourage viewers to see Malala as a preternaturally gifted leader, but it doesn’t get at what’s driven her to become a symbol for change.
He Named Me Malala
Directed by Davis Guggenheim
Opens October 2, Landmark Sunshine and AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13