26th Sep2015

LFF 2015: ‘He Named Me Malala’ Review

by Mark Allen

Featuring: Malala Yousafzai, Ziauddin Yousafzai | Directed by Davis Guggenheim


Some people make you feel so damn lazy. Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist who was shot in the head by Taliban for speaking out about the importance of educating women, accomplished more by the time she was 17 than most of us will do in our entire lives. That’s enough to convince even the most jaded cynic that one person can actually make a difference. Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim charts the inspirational young woman’s journey from her education in Pakistan to winning the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, including all the bumps and victories experienced along the way – with one particularly brutal bump firmly in mind.

Through a mix of interviews, archive footage and impressionistic animation, He Named Me Malala retells a more-or-less comprehensive version of a story that most Westerners are mostly already aware of, though with much of the focus on Malala’s relationship with her father Ziauddin, a former teacher. It’s clear that much of her passion for education and against the tyranny of oppression against women comes from Ziauddin, though Malala herself suggests that the only thing he gave her was her name. The opening sequence, animated in broad brushstrokes, has Malala tell us the origin of her name: it belonged to an Afghani teenager who encouraged her countrymen to stand and fight the English during the First Anglo-Afghan War – a teenager who was shot and killed for standing up for her cause.

Most biographical documentaries live or die on how engaging the subject is, and Guggenheim’s film is no different; if Malala weren’t as impassioned, fiercely intelligent and effortlessly hilarious as she is in her many interviews, He Named Me Malala may have been a trudge to get through, although no less important for it. Thankfully, however, Malala is all of these things, bringing a refreshingly zen-like attitude, for a teenager, to matters like receiving death threats that mean she can’t return home for fear of being killed. Perhaps what’s so striking about Malala’s portrayal is not that she is such an accomplished activist at such a young age but that, for all her successes and elevation to political rock star status, she’s still a teenage girl from Pakistan. It’s to Guggenheim’s credit that we’re allowed to see this; one low-key scene has Malala looking up her favourite sportsmen and actors on the internet, the director asking whether she likes their haircuts and his subject giggling nervously like the adolescent she actually is.

An engaging portrait into possibly the most earnest world figure alive today, He Named Me Malala isn’t short of inspirational speeches, arguably to the point of critical mass. The simple point of the film (Malala is extraordinary; education for women is great, duh) is beaten into the audience over and over again, but it never gets tiresome because, well, who wouldn’t want to spend an hour and a half with a person as delightful as Malala?

He Named Me Malala is showing at the 2015 BFI London Film Festival, which runs from 8-17 October. For tickets and more information click here.


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