It’s an observation that might seem harsh but is nevertheless true: the quality of a documentary depends not merely on the high-mindedness of its subject but the way in which the story is told. Malala Yousafzai, the youngster who became a target of the Taliban for championing the cause of girls’ education in Pakistan, is an admirable person, the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. But Davis Guggenheim’s biographical “He Named Me Malala” is a disappointment, clumsily constructed and more hagiographical than truly enlightening.
The title suggests an intriguing route the film might have taken but instead alludes to only in passing. By naming his daughter Malala, her father Ziauddin—himself an important anti-Taliban activist who appears both in file footage and interviews—intended to identify her with a legendary Afghan heroine who rallied tribal fighters against British forces in the late nineteenth century but herself died in the battle. (That mythic Malala’s story is portrayed through pastel-colored animated sequences by Jason Carpenter that recur periodically to depict episodes in her namesake’s life as well.) A few people shown in news footage express the idea, rather angrily, that Ziauddin in fact molded his daughter to serve as a spokesman for his ideas—that she became a puppet in the realization of his own, admittedly progressive, agenda. But that notion is dismissed almost with a shrug; one wonders whether Guggenheim should have explored it more thoroughly.
Instead the film becomes a laudatory portrait that follows Malala’s campaign against those who sought, often through cruelly violent, barbaric means, to close schools (especially those that catered to girls) through the 2012 assassination attempt on her (in which she was shot in the face) and her long, difficult rehabilitation, which has left one side of her face partially paralyzed. It then goes on to show the family’s residence in England and Malala’s emergence as a champion of the rights of girls everywhere—a mission that has taken her around the world to give speeches and commiserate in places—such as Nigeria—where schoolgirls have become the special target of militant extremists. It culminates, of course, in her being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Guggenheim’s film covers all of this, but in a disjointed, fractured fashion that lurches back and forth in time, resulting not only in some confusion but a great deal of repetition. Quite frankly its most affecting moments are the domestic ones, when we see the Yousafzai family at their home in Birmingham. In these sequences Malala can be glimpsed as a real teenager, worried over her schoolwork, giggling at sites she visits on the Internet, and engaging in give-and-take with her brothers. The portrait of an ordinary young person doing extraordinary things is certainly a useful one for audiences—especially other young people—to see, but though one doesn’t expect deep investigative work in what’s effectively designed as a plea for others to join in the crusade for girls’ education, some more penetrating examination into the origin of Malala’s public activities back home would not be out of place.
What remains is a gentle, clearly admiring biography of an engaging young woman whose refusal to buckle under to the brutal tactics of those she rightly condemns is an inspiring example of courage under literal fire. But it must be added that the film does not dig very deep; it’s a surface portrait that barely suggests the currents that might lie beneath, let alone consider them to any extent. By the close, when a web address flashes on the screen to invite viewers to join in Malala’s crusade, one feels a bit like one’s just watched an extended PSA—but then a bit guilty about thinking that.