Every year, a new version of Malala Yousafzai’s story has come out. Two consecutive summers featured the release of an autobiography by the iconic activist. This year’s offering is the documentary He Named Me Malala.
He Named Me Malala takes a non-linear approach to telling the story of the young Nobel Peace Prize winner’s childhood, activism, and near assassination by the Taliban. Building on the autobiographies that came out in 2013 and 2014, the documentary also follows-up on the changes in Malala’s life since she was transported to Birmingham, England following the attack. Now a schoolgirl in a new country, she balances culture shock, high school exams, and international speaking engagements. Through the use of animation, montage, and interviews, the film tracks the evolution of Malala and her father, Ziauddin, into international advocates for girls’ education, overcoming personal obstacles and threats of violence.
In considering possible audience reactions to He Named Me Malala, I found myself with a conundrum. On one hand, if you have read I Am Malala, He Named Me Malala may be repetitious and therefore boring. On the other hand, if you have not read the book, parts of the film may be so shallow that they could be confusing. In a way, the film acts as an extended epilogue to the book(s), but one that can stand, albeit shakily, on its own. As a result, it is hard to consider the film much of a success as it falls somewhere between repetitive and vague, depending on the audience’s prior exposure to its stars.
Even still, the film does have its charms. Watching the antagonistic dynamic between Malala and her brothers, Khushal and Atal, provides access to a fun and mischievous side of her that often does not get shown. In contrast, the film also begins to pull at the threads of Malala’s suffering, a topic that she refuses to talk about in the film. Nonetheless, through weighty silences and caught moments behind the scenes, the documentary hints at more pain and sacrifice than Malala herself speaks openly about. This development is especially interesting considering how much Malala tends to stick to her talking points about education in her speeches and writing. The vulnerability in contrast with the moments in which she seems like any other sassy, awkward teenager are the most interesting parts of the film.
That said, these raw and silly parts are scattered in with a lot of content told in a fairly disorganized fashion. Although I enjoyed the use of animation to recreate moments from the past, the non-linear structure of the film does not move the story along very compellingly and, for an 88 minute-long feature, the film starts to feel very long. It does not seem to have a clear purpose or a sense of direction.
Visually, He Named Me Malala is beautiful. My favorite effect was the way the animation depicts the importance of language by showing words coming out of people’s bodies and lighting up in the air. The image resonated with the message Malala and Ziauddin convey about speaking up. In terms of photography, the film does an excellent job of capturing the natural beauty of Malala’s native Swat Valley in contrast with the landscape and architecture of England. In subtle ways, the difference between the two depicts the isolation that the Yousafzai family must feel.
If you are really interested in learning more about Malala Yousafzai’s life, I recommend reading her autobiography rather than watching this film. The Young Reader’s Edition of I Am Malala is my favorite of the two versions and contains most of the content in the film, but with more depth and context. On its own, I rate He Named Me Malala 3/5 stars.
He Named Me Malala was directed by Davis Duggenheim. It runs 88 minutes and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements involving disturbing images and threats.