He Named Me Malala

Scott Wallace
8th Nov 2015

It was only a matter of time before Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani activist who became a household name after standing up to the Taliban in defence of the right of young women to receive an education, became the subject of a feature-length documentary. Malala is now just 18, 16 at the time that He Named Me Malala was filmed, and yet she is already being transformed into a mythical figure.

He Named Me Malala opens with an animated sequence telling the story of the woman after whom Malala was named, a woman called Malalai who raised her voice and urged her countrymen to fight against the invading British. The parallel is obvious, but the animated sections (though lovely to look at) that appear throughout this documentary still feel somewhat forced.

Often voiceovers (many of which are frustratingly never attached to a name or a face) can come across as canned or scripted. Particularly in the animated sections, even the voiceovers of Malala and her father Ziauddin play as if they’ve been cut up into orphaned soundbites, making it feel less like a true narrative and more like a fable – an impression that is only compounded by the rough, hand-painted appearance of the animations.

This film is at its best when it directly engages with Malala. It is very moving to see her doing everything in her power to help other people all around the world, as well as her cheeky interactions with her family. Every time she is on-screen the sparkling intelligence behind her big brown eyes is palpable. There is a confidence about her that is very inspiring.

He Named Me Malala is an unfocused film, though. It will often pick up an interesting thread, such as Malala’s thoughts on forgiving those who persecuted and nearly killed her, her devotion to Islam, or how she is regarded by people in her homeland, but it drops these threads almost as immediately as it picks them up. The film seems very reluctant to dig deeper, and is instead content to retell what can be easily found with a Google search.

As a consequence, He Named Me Malala can feel rather shallow. There is no denying that Malala’s story is an important one, but this documentary goes about telling it in the wrong way. Instead of exploring Malala as a real human being, it turns her into a myth. Instead of truly showing us why Malala is a great person deserving of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, it asks us to believe that implicitly.

There are some profoundly moving moments in He Named Me Malala, but after it ends, you don’t come away feeling as if you have gained any new information or understanding. It tugs at your heartstrings, but it’s not really thought provoking. You will fall in love with Malala as she is presented in this film, but it needed more to be truly worthy of such an admirable person.

He Named Me Malala opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday November 12.