“This is Malala Yousafzai, she is the naughtiest girl in the world.”
The teenage activist’s brother says this to tease her, but for some in her home country of Pakistan, the sentiment holds true — she was “naughty” enough to be targeted by the Taliban. Malala became a household name in 2012 when she was shot on her way to school, following a decision by Taliban leaders outlawing the education of girls. Since then, she has become a leading advocate for human rights and equal education for women. In 2014, she became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Through numerous television appearances, speeches, and her autobiography “I Am Malala,” the generalities of her story have become well known in the Western world.
Davis Guggenheim’s (“An Inconvenient Truth”) latest documentary, “He Named Me Malala,” tries to break past the public image of “Malala” to the teenage girl underneath. However, the film comes across as an hour and a half episode of “60 Minutes,” scratching a surface that has already been scratched. Malala is powerful, and the work she is doing for girls around the world is inspiring, that seems to be all we get from the film.
Malala’s relationship with her father is central to the film and provides the possibility for some more depth and provocation. The film’s title alludes to the formative role her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, plays in her activism. In Pakistan, Yousafzai was a school owner and education activist, who, as we learn in the opening animated scene, named his daughter after a woman who used her voice to inspire her country to fight for what they thought was right. He was a vocal activist for education equality in Pakistan, making it on the Taliban’s list before his daughter. The question looming over their relationship is: How much did her father influence, or even push, her into this type of activism? It’s a question hinted at and skirted around throughout the film. The pursuit of its answer would provide “He Named Me Malala” with the depth it so desperately needs.
What Guggenheim does capture is the stark contrast between Malala’s age and her role in the world. In one scene, she is shown laughing at clips from “Despicable Me” on YouTube, but is interrupted by a phone interview in which she is asked about death threats from the Taliban. Minions and murder aren’t supposed to exist in the same world, but for Malala they do. What is the toll of her type of activism? We know Malala suffers physically for her beliefs, but is she suffering emotionally as well? The film hints at these questions, but unfortunately decides not to answer.
Guggenheim isn’t one to shy away from controversy in his films. His 2010 film “Waiting for Superman” criticized the American Public School system by asking tough questions and seeking answers. “An Inconvenient Truth” sought to find the, well, inconvenient truth about global warming and greenhouse gases. Both films prompted debate and discussion in a way “He Named Me Malala” does not. Perhaps that is because Guggenheim’s latest film is targeted at a different, younger audience. He seems to spend a good amount of time telling the audience, “Hey, look, Malala is just like you!” She fights with her brothers, she teaches her dad how to tweet and she even fails the occasional biology test. In that way, “He Named Me Malala” works as a YA documentary, aimed at an audience too young to already know her story.
“He Named Me Malala” provides a wonderful role model for young audiences, but doesn’t give many answers for viewers in search of the human behind the media phenomenon.