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With: Malala Yousafzai, Ziauddin Yousafzai, Toor Pekai Yousafzai, Khushal Yousafzai, Atal Yousafzai
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Davis Guggenheim
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements involving disturbing images and threats
Running Time: 87
Date: 10/09/2015

He Named Me Malala (2015)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Stronger Than Fear

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When I first walked out of Davis Guggenheim's documentary He Named Me Malala, I was thinking that it felt a little soft. Surely a movie about a real-life hero like Malala Yousafzai should be more ruthless, with less hero-worship? But then it hit me: she's 15 in the movie (and 18 as of this writing). What are her flaws really going to be at this point? They are going to be stuff about school and boys. Guggenheim shows Malala at her school, looking out of place, trying to fit in, and it resonates enough that we get an idea. But at the same time, when she is meeting with world leaders and speaking to the world, maybe she thinks her own little problems aren't worth a hill of beans.

Perhaps a different kind of filmmaker could have given us a more subtle, personal mixture of Malala and her innermost fears and desires, but her main story is so powerful and moving that it would take a film of considerable length to do more. As readers may already know, she grew up in Pakistan, under Taliban rule, but, encouraged by her father, a teacher, she kept an anonymous blog about her experiences, and about how she believed that women should be educated. In 2012, the Taliban boarded her school bus and shot her (and several of her classmates). She lived, but her face remains slightly off-balance from the damage. She and her family were forced into exile in England — the Taliban have threatened to kill her if she returns — and she continues to speak about education and freedom. As the credits roll, we see her winning the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize (she's the youngest ever recipient).

That's her story in a nutshell, and Guggenheim — who won an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth (2006) — tells it well. He spent a great deal of time getting to know her and trying to connect with her on a personal level, but also trying to be respectful of her culture. We see images of her eating with her family, her brothers teasing her. We see her room, and the little space where she works. We see her bookshelf, complete with a copy of her own bestselling book I Am Malala, playfully autographed to herself (she makes a shy remark about how it's not her favorite book).

But she must have related to the filmmaker the same way she relates to other world leaders and grownups. She has exactly the right thing to say, which generally relates to tolerance; she claims she has no hatred or anger toward the men who shot her. She seems less comfortable with people her own age; living in England, she's a celebrity, has physical imperfections, an accent, different clothing, different beliefs, etc. It's a given that she's going to have a rough time at school. We get only a couple of shots of her sitting near classmates. We don't know if any of them are her friends, or if she can really talk to anyone her own age. (Apparently, Malala herself says that she's most afraid of speaking to little kids because they ask the toughest questions.)

One small revelation that comes out during the movie is that it calls into questions most Americans' blanket view of Islam as bad or evil. Malala herself belongs to he Islamic religion and proves that it's not all bad. As for the bad parts, she says of the Taliban that they are not about faith; they are about power. Indeed, stories of the Taliban using the radio to announce the names of people who weren't following the rules (those people would later be killed), instilled fear in the people, rather than hope.

My favorite documentary of all time is Terry Zwigoff's Crumb, and whenever I see another documentary about a living person, I can't help but compare them. The subject of Crumb has lived his whole life. He's wise and cynical and seems unafraid to explore his own impulses and feelings. Malala is also unafraid, but she's young. She has lived lifetimes more than others her own age, but she still lacks the life experience to truly dig deep into her own persona. Plus she is a hero, a real-life kind of hero that very rarely comes along, and it's very hard to tell stories of heroes and make them feel relatable to normal people.

In this light, then, I suggest that Guggenheim made the best film he possibly could. Add this to the fact that he deliberately made the film for his own daughters, aiming for a family-friendly rating, and perhaps achieving something that could affect the youth of today in a positive way before they became too cynical themselves. It's not very hard. Even as the critical part of my brain was working, I, too, found myself strongly affected by the words and actions of this teenage hero, this Malala.

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