Malala inspires despite an unwieldy storyline

PORTLAND – He Named Me Malala begins beautifully, as we hear Malala Yousafzai’s voice telling us the story of her namesake as it’s reenacted in animated illustrations: a young girl from an Afghan folk tale, Malala, rallies her country’s troops in a battle against the British, and is killed on the battlefield after choosing to speak out.

Next Malala Yousafzai’s unconscious body is rolled into surgery, and the voices of broadcasters tell us she was shot by the Taliban for encouraging girls to go to school. Young Pakistani children, their eyes wet with tears, sit at a candlelight vigil waiting to hear if she will live through the night.

She survives to have her smiling face printed on the cover of her book, I Am Malala, and I’ve seen this novel in the hands of young girls from all walks of life, but this is the first time we get to see her in a more personal way. Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim follows a fully recovered Malala to her modern day home in suburban Britain and explores her new life in a different country with her parents and two brothers. The story is presented in a disorganized fashion, as we flip between card games with her family to the chilling tale of the Taliban takeover of her hometown in Swat Valley, Pakistan.

The Taliban started by burning all CDs and DVDs they deemed offensive to Islam, then they burned everyone’s televisions. Soon thereafter, they announced women should only receive a religious education, before deciding they should receive no education at all. Malala’s father, Ziauddin, was a teacher, and had started his own school with only 150 dollars. He had seen his pupils dwindle as the Taliban continued their threats, taking over the FM radio station and beheading those who dared to oppose them.

Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Malala’s father felt as if he could no longer be silent, and started speaking out against the Taliban. As a passionate educator he’s certainly made an impression on Malala and her love for learning, and soon she raised her voice against the Taliban too. They seem to share a love for speaking out against oppression, even in the face of danger.

I had heard details about the brutal assault on Malala’s life, but it is true that pictures speak louder than words. The film shows us photographs from the fateful shooting on the school bus, and the video footage obtained from the Taliban horrors bring us closer to the terror we’ve heard on the news for years. Her father is asked by Guggenheim, “What is the name of the man who shot Malala?”

“It was not a man,” he replies, “It was an ideology.”

The moment in the film perhaps most telling was when Malala was asked if she is angry with the man who shot her. She says not even one bit –  “not one proton.”

Although the film lacks cohesion in its storytelling, it seems impossible not to be star-struck by this daring and inspirational lady despite the movie’s technical faults. The camera follows her to Nigeria where she demands the return of the school girls captured by Boko Haram, giving a stirring speech that beckons the government to act. She stops by a school before leaving Nigeria to talk with other girls about their dreams and aspirations. “How many want to study history?” She asks, and a few hands are raised, with one girl responding that she wants to be a lawyer. As she sleeps on her father’s shoulder from flight to flight, its clear that meeting with world leaders while still in school takes its toll.

A star pupil in Pakistan, Malala says she is an average student in Britain. “Do you want to see my biology test?” She giggles, while revealing a middling score to the camera. Like many teenagers she bewails the struggles of homework, but still finds the time to socialize with friends and even reveals some of her favorite cricket players, covering her mouth to laugh at Guggenheim’s accusation that she might like these handsome men for more than just their sporty prowess. This documentary takes viewers beyond the media headlines, past the speeches and into the world of a teenage girl trying to live a normal life despite her circumstances – giggles and all.

Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures

As someone who is usually harsher in my media critiques than others, I thought many critics were too hard on this film due to its lack of direction, because it is still so interesting to meet this young woman and see the way she views the world despite her struggles. It would serve wonderfully as an educational documentary to young people in school and to anyone who wants to learn more about Malala and the struggles in the Middle East.

I left the theater feeling a bittersweet mix of sadness and hope; sadness for all the suffering of refugees displaced due to the actions of terrorists, but hopeful that the ideology that threatens stabilization in the Middle East and around the world can eventually be defeated by a new ideology: one of peace, passion and education for all. As Malala proudly declared to the United Nations, “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”

Perhaps someday a film will capture the admirable Malala in an Oscar-worthy way, but despite its clunky presentation, Davis Guggenheim’s film is still an intriguing portrait of a genuine and inspirational youth. Although her accomplishments are many, she has a full life ahead of her, and I have no doubt we’ll see more of her in the future. For now, she is a teenager still in school with much to learn, and even more to teach us all.

Now playing in select theatres.