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"HE NAMED ME MALALA"
(2015) (Documentary) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Documentary: A chronicle of Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner in history who was shot by the Taliban in Pakistan for publicly championing girls' education.
PLOT:
In October 2012, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai boarded her school bus in Pakistan and was almost immediately shot three times by a Taliban assassin, including once in her forehead. She was targeted for advocating in public the importance of educating girls. The oppressive Taliban had been bombing schools throughout the country and was seeking to ban females from all learning.

Remarkably, Malala was not killed. She spent a long while in a coma and eventually had to learn all sorts of motor and language skills again upon waking up. But her will remained strong even as she and her family were forced to flee Pakistan and never return. She wrote a best-selling book about her life and became a worldwide crusader for educating girls and women, speaking to the United Nations, visiting Third World countries, appearing on "The Daily Show," and visiting President Obama in the White House. In 2014, she would become the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

But her journey to celebrity and advocacy was indeed a painful one, and her activist-teacher father, Ziauddin, often wonders if it was his fault that his daughter was maimed and forever scarred. Malala, meanwhile, is also shown in everyday life. She has to deal with school studies; her lack of dating experience; her quarrels with her younger brothers, Toor and Atal; and Khushal, a traditionalist mother who Malala feels sorry for due to her lack of education.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
The trap of reviewing a documentary like "He Named Me Malala" is that the subject matter is so important and the real-life figure it chronicles is so inspiring, that many critics end up reviewing the message and not the film itself. Right off the bat, this reviewer and this website honors the journey of 18-year-old activist, author, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai and stands in awe of what she has been through and has accomplished in her young life. It's just too bad a better film couldn't have made about her. In fact, it's a flat-out shame.

Based on her best-selling autobiography, "He Named Me Malala" is the latest effort by Davis Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind such other docs as "An Inconvenient Truth" and "Waiting for Superman." He is a passionate and skilled documentarian, there's no doubt about that. Unfortunately, with this film, he has let his skill rule out over his passion, and we get a curiously slow, plodding, disjointed film as a result. This is a highly problematic documentary, folks, and it didn't need to be.

Malala Yousafzai is the Pakistani teenager who took a vocal, dangerously public stand in support of girls' education in her home country and around the world. This immediately brought her into conflict with the oppressive Taliban, who initially sent her death threats via mail and social media. When she refused to give up her advocating for the cause, Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah ordered her killed. And an assassin tracked her down on her school bus one afternoon in October 2012 and shot her three times, once in the forehead.

Her shooting became a worldwide story that gained increasing notoriety by the fact that she miraculously survived, was in a coma for days, and eventually recovered to resume her social activism around the globe. She would go on to win the Nobel, along with armfuls of other honors from a Grammy Award for Best Children's Album to the Clinton Global Citizen Award to the National Youth Prize. She was given honorary Canadian citizenship, there was an asteroid named after her, she was Glamour Magazine's Woman of the Year, one of Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World," and the NBA's Sixth Man of 2014.

OK, I'm kidding about the NBA honor. But Malala really became one of the world's most famous teenagers, and not for churning out bad pop music or starring on a cloying Nickelodeon or Disney Channel show. She's the real deal.

All of this should make for a great and urgent film. But Guggenheim takes a strangely muted approach. There are a couple of obvious problems apparent right from the get-go. One, Malala has a thick Pakistani accent. English is not her first language. Guggenheim allows her a LOT of voiceover narration here, and he obviously had to record her lines several times over to get the clearest pronunciations. So, a lot of what you hear sounds like it is actually being read. It sounds very rehearsed, very monotone, almost like one of those hostage videos you see terrorists make when they capture people and force them to read their demands.

Two, and this is a big one, Malala and the Yousafzai family only appear willing to pull back the curtain so much on their lives. Malala's father, Ziauddin, was clearly a major influence on her growing up. He had been a teacher and an activist himself in Pakistan, willing to challenge his country and society's long-held customs and traditions. When Malala is eventually shot, he recalls feeling responsible and wondering if he pushed her too much to be an agent of change. It's a dynamic worth exploring further. But every time the film comes close to doing so, Malala basically cuts Guggenheim off and repeats over and over again, "This was my choice! This was all my doing, my decision." The truth? Or is there a bit of "brand protection" going on. I do hate being so cynical.

At the same time, Malala has a traditionalist mother who is mostly quiet and relegated to the background for nearly the entire film. She clearly is unhappy with being forced to flee Pakistan for England and has not really learned much of the English language. Malala is asked about her briefly, and she expresses pity that her mom is uneducated. But that's about it. Later, Guggenheim presses Malala to discuss the grueling recovery and physical therapy she was forced to endure after her surgery. And she pretty much outright refuses to talk on camera.

So, it's no wonder "He Named Me Malala" is only 88 minutes long with credits. Guggenheim didn't get to go too deep. The most cinematic event of Malala's life -- her attempted murder -- was not caught on camera and there was very little footage of her activism in Pakistan before that to also put on screen. And all we get of the Taliban are brief insert shots of guys in hoods and half-masks riding around in pick-up trucks with rifles. And instead of dramatic recreations, Guggenheim throws in heavily stylized animated sequences that look like water-color paintings brought to life. The first couple of times he cuts to these fanciful animations, it's pretty cool. By the fifth or sixth time, it feels like filler.

And it doesn't help that he depicts Malala's life in a non-linear fashion, back-ending the film with the attempted assassination, the world's reaction, and scenes of her physical therapy. Because he had limited access, a stilted narration, and he opted not to go the Michael Moore/Dinesh D'Souza route and inject himself fully into his film, Guggenheim really needed to grab his audience right away. Instead, he's delivered a respectful, exceedingly professional work that feels like an assignment to get through. This is a real disappointment that I give a 4 out of 10. (T. Durgin)




Reviewed October 7, 2015 / Posted October 9, 2015


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