What were you doing when you were seventeen? If your answer is “Taking the President of Nigeria to task over his failure to secure the return of kidnapped schoolgirls from Boko Haram”, then you must be Malala Yousafzai.
Now perhaps the most recognisable eighteen year-old on the planet, the activist and two-time Nobel laureate is now the subject this documentary from director Davis Guggenheim, which does justice to the scope of her achievements, if not the complexity of Malala herself.
Opening with a pastel recreation of the legend that all-too presciently inspired Malala’s name, He Named Me Malala focuses on Malala’s life in the UK. Having left Pakistan following an assassination attempt by the Taliban, who oppose her attempts to secure education for women around the world, she’s now, to quote Southbank Centre Artistic Director Jude Kelly, “a profoundly influential world leader – who [at the time was] also doing her GCSEs”. It’s enough to put anyone’s life in perspective.
Malala argues in favour of courage in the face of impossible odds, that, to quote her predecessor who was killed on the battlefield, it is “better to live like a lion for one day than to live as a slave for a hundred years”. It was this conviction, and certainly the profound influence of her diplomat father, Ziauddin, that led Malala to call out the extremists that dictate life in her home, the Swat Valley, painting over women’s faces on billboards and blowing up schools.
Guggenheim clearly has a rapport with Malala and her siblings, drawing laughter and confessions alike as Malala admits to crushes on Brad Pitt and Roger Federer. He Named Me Malala reveals the ordinary girl behind the indomitable spirit, who is embarrassed about her school marks but inspires people around the world. She laughs at the Minions on her iPad then carries out a video interview on it. The two things side by side simply make her all the more remarkable.
If He Named Me Malala offers a new angle, that of a giddy, giggling schoolgirl, but, beyond which, little insight into how Malala became Malala. When she states defiantly that “My father only gave me the name Malala, he didn’t make me Malala”, it feels like only part of the story. The other parts, which include Ziauddin overcoming his stuttering to become an orator, are fascinating, but they’re not truly Malala’s story. Maybe 88 minutes is just not enough time to really come to terms with that.