He Named Me Malala (2015)

Director: Davis Guggenheim

I don’t like Davis Guggenheim as a director or his films. I think that he chooses brilliant topics and very fascinating subjects and then has absolutely no idea what to do with them. I consider him more of a cameraman than a director because it would seem that all he does is shoot and that is about it. An Inconvenient Truth won the Oscar nine years ago, but the slide show at the center of the documentary had already been made by Al Gore, it was his ideas that were front and center, his itinerary the movie followed. Exactly what did Guggenheim bring to the project? Two years later the director shot the interesting jam session that occurred between Jack White, The Edge (U2) and Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) and then just let them do their thing in It Might Get Loud. I may be wrong, but I believe that even in a documentary there must be some level of artistry and direction. Things can get out of hand and bias drives the story too much (love him or hate him Michael Moore is a great example of this), but at least the viewer is invested and has something to react to. Even Guggenheim’s shots are boring and seem like no forethought has occurred, and this has all left me very unimpressed with him over the years.

So does Guggenheim’s new venture, He Named Me Malala, break the mold? Unfortunately it does not, and all that has bothered me in his other works is once again present here. At this point one must have been living under a rock not to know the name of Malala Yousafzai. She is so well known that she is simply known and referred to by her first name. Between appearances on news and media shows (like The Daily Show), penning a best selling memoir (I Am Malala), and receiving a little thing called the Nobel Peace Prize, let’s just say that the now 18 year old has made quite an impact.

Her story is also quite well known to even the casual news watcher. For a while Malala, using a pseudonym, blogged for the BBC informing international readers of the growing presence of the Taliban and its effects in her native country of Pakistan. Once she became a public figure she was shot on her school bus in the head, surviving the ordeal in spite of the damage. Following the murder attempt Malala became a voice for women’s education all over the world. Forced to live in exile, she and her family moved to England, but Malala refused to remain quite and travels the world meeting with world leaders and trying to make changes from Kenya to Syria.

I will concede that making a documentary about such a ubiquitous presence is going to be daunting, because the viewer will be looking for something new from the film, otherwise why watch it? Unfortunately that question does not get answered. There are a few domestic moments peppered throughout the film that shed Malala of her majesty and remind us that she is, in fact, still a teenager who sometimes reprimands her younger brothers and may have crushes on famous cricket players and Googles their pictures like any other adolescent girl. There are also some stunning animated sequences referencing the young Afghani hero that Malala is named after, and they are very nicely drawn. That said, though, this film is a greatest hits compilation of Malala’s achievements. It hurriedly moves from one interview to another, one event to another, turning into a slide show of all the famous hands the young woman has shaken and all the impact she’s had. Instead of letting Malala’s ideas and her mission breathe, her voice is suppressed by her own celebrity, effectively rendering her the symbol and western propaganda mouthpiece she is sometimes accused of being, which is a shame, because it is so clear that she is not, nor does she wish to be interpreted as such.

Guggenheim simply does not know what to do with Malala, who is so self assured and clear in her convictions. It becomes obvious that the film would have been better rendered if control were in her hands because she actually seems to know what she is doing and she is just a teenager. If only people twice her age were so self aware.

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