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A Taliban bullet didn't keep her down


He Named Me Malala (PG). Director: Davis Guggenheim. Starring: Malala Yousafzai, Ziauddin Yousafzai. 88 minutes

Malala Yousafzai is a worthy subject. A Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate (in 2014 at the age of 17), her international prominence was cemented in October 2012 when she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman. She survived, and has since continued advocating and working for women's education around the world, including this year opening a school for 14 to 18-year-old refugee girls in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, near the Syrian border. Her memoir I Am Malala, co-written with British journalist Christina Lamb, provides the basis for this documentary.

In relating Malala's early and present life, and her achievements as an advocate on the public stage both before and after the shooting, documentarian Guggenheim weaves together a number of disparate elements. Most engaging is a series of mythic, animated vignettes that tie her experiences in the Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan to those of the 19th century Pakistani folk hero Malalai of Maiwand, after whom she was named. There are also original interviews, and fly-on-the-wall footage of Malala's home and school life in her adopted home of England, and advocacy trips to Ethiopia and Nigeria.

The 'he' of the title is Malala's father Ziauddin, who is the secondary hero of Guggenheim's account of Malala's life. We are told, rather touchingly, how he overcame a stutter in order to emulate his preacher father. Later, he developed a passion for teaching, opening a school in the Swat Valley and fostering in Malala, his only daughter and eldest child, a passion for learning, as well as a fierce individual agency. A stutter is hardly an equivalent hardship to the experiences of being a young woman at odds with the Taliban, but Ziauddin's back story helps to illuminate the values in whose light Malala was nurtured.

Sadly the film is not more than the sum of its parts. Guggenheim tends to opt for glib hagiography over insightful storytelling. He introduces us to Kainat Riaz and Shazia Ramzan, the two other girls who were wounded during the attempt on Malala's life, but does not invite their recollections of the event. We have bitsy encounters with Malala's cheeky younger brothers, but no great insights into her family life. The film is clearly well-intentioned, but does a disservice to Malala and her story, reducing it to something with the depth and cogency of an unedited Wikipedia screed — tantalising, but unsatisfying.

It does make the odd attempt at probing the nuances of human motivation and responsibility. Notably, it seems to ponder whether Ziauddin is indirectly responsible for Malala's shooting, having not only encouraged her advocacy but perhaps predestined her to it, as the one who chose her portentous name. The question of exploitation is relevant whenever a child enters the public gaze, but Guggenheim's treatment of it is so glib as to be meaningless, achieving little other than to threaten to undermine Malala's own agency, as a young woman who can think, speak and act powerfully on her own behalf. 

The greatest treasures that the film has to offer then are the moments that capture Malala's personality beyond the earnestness of her mission. One brother reports that Malala will defend him from the teasing of their other brother, only to slap him herself when no one is looking. 'It's because I love you,' Malala cackles. In another scene, Malala googles images of famous sports stars; Guggenheim asks whether she likes Roger Federer 'for his tennis or for his hair', and Malala's embarrassed giggle is all the answer we need. These light human moments strengthen by contrast the inspiring image of her as a folk hero.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Malala, Pakistan, Taliban, education, Davis Guggenheim



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Existing comments

Malala, you little beauty. Doesn't everyone like Roger Federer for his hair?

Pam | 05 November 2015  

The Swat Valley is really 'King of the Khyber Rifles' country: remote, beautiful and with a long, bloodthirsty and fascinating history. Malala Yousafzai's Pushtun tribe are prominent locally. The area was once quite progressive with some education for women. All this stopped with the arrival of the Taliban. There is great tragedy and joy in the lives of Malala and her family. Guggenheim could probably have made a far better film.

Edward Fido | 06 November 2015  

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