The three bullets shot point-blank on the morning of October 9, 2012 gave resistance a new face: the cherubic yet determined face of a 15-year-old girl from the war-torn valley of Swat. The bullets thrust into her brain certainly backfired, as this girl with a gifted mind has moved from being a local hero to becoming an international symbol of resilience. Malala Yousafzai has transcended geopolitical boundaries to achieve global recognition and appreciation, overshadowing the nefarious agenda of her opponents.
But being Malala is not easy. Taking responsibility for the attack on her, the Taliban had claimed to have targeted her “because of her pioneer role in teaching secularism…she was pro-West; she was speaking against the Taliban; she was calling president Obama her idol”. She was an anomaly in her home region.
The documentary He Named Me Malala traces Malala’s footprints from rural Swat to a Birmingham flat which she now shares with her parents and brothers. The documentary takes the audience beyond the girl in the public eye to the shy sister of two naughty brothers and the obedient daughter to doting parents.
The documentary tells us that the youngest ever Nobel laureate is named after a heroic character in Pakhtun folklore. Malalai, the legend goes, was a teenage girl who climbed to a mountaintop and addressed the Afghans fighting the mighty British invaders during the Battle of Maiwand. “It is better to live one day as a lion than to live a hundred as a slave,” she declared to raise their dwindling confidence.
Malala’s story becomes the epitome of the message of freedom and honour delivered by her namesake in the folklore. The twin ideals are cornerstones of her struggle to rise above the submissive role that tradition allocates to her gender in Swat. Her fight is so huge and her effort so Herculean that her mother still seems to be traumatised by its effects and aftershocks. This is how the documentary introduces us to our hero, Malala.
He Named Me Malala is remarkably apolitical. Apart from showing the Taliban’s violently radicalised reign in Swat, it doesn’t so much as attempt to point out the role the government or the army might have had in the valley’s deteriorating social and political climate. Even the 2009 security operation in Swat that forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes is not mentioned (Malala herself has repeatedly touched upon that operation and the consequent displacement in her book, I Am Malala).
Anyone remotely familiar with Davis Guggenheim’s previous work knows that this shunning the political issues is unlike him. He is the Oscar-winning director of such politically charged documentaries as An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for ‘Superman’. In those documentaries, Guggenheim took strong political positions on burning issues such as global warming and the failure of the American public education system. In He Named Me Malala, Guggenheim seems to have taken a break from his signature style and instead relates a story plain and simple — a little too plain and simple, perhaps.
Containing a collage of family interviews, snippets from Malala’s life in Swat and Birmingham, and vignettes from her international tours and her appearances at conferences and seminars, the documentary constantly shifts between now and the time before she was shot. While the present is the Birmingham flat or her school in the same city or some public event, the past is almost always shown through animated images. Yes, animated images.
Animation – blurred and surreal – is one of the major highlights of the documentary and the way it is incorporated within the narrative makes it the most effective technique employed by the director. It allows the younger audiences an easier access into Malala’s reminisces of her past and adds a peculiar rhythm to an otherwise prosaic storytelling.
Explaining his decision to use animation, Guggenheim said in an interview: “There are these incredibly important epic moments that had to be in the movie and I didn’t know how to do it.” It was especially challenging to bring on the screen the paradise-like place that Malala’s family calls home”, he said.
In any case, the constant movement between the animated past and the realistically shown present allows the film-maker to highlight all the various aspects of Malala’s life and present them as a whole. This shifting between then and now is also helpful in highlighting her attachment to her roots in Swat and her attempts at assimilation into her new life in England. The binaries of home and migration are well-knitted into the documentary, especially through repeated references to Malala’s shawl-clad mother, who gradually recedes into the background in every scene she is in.
Malala has understandably enchanted the world, particularly the West, with her story. It’s not every day that a girl from Swat ends up standing next to world leaders at the United Nations. The film is very clearly directed at the kind of audience that is likely to be impressed by such transformation; a life of relative obscurity in the rural hinterland of a Third World country to international stardom. It is the same kind of attention that Slumdog Millionaire, a feature film, had received and for the same reason — a protagonist in a wretched South Asian milieu making it big through sheer grit.
In many ways, the film comes across as a slacked version of Malala’s autobiography, I Am Malala, which became a 2013 bestseller. In fact, at times, the documentary appears as too literal a rendition of the book and does not offer any fresh perspective into the life of Malala, the person and the legend.
So, expect hero worship as you would in a biographical documentary but don’t expect it to be about Malala only. The attention is shared by her father Ziauddin Yousafzai. His story is intertwined with Malala’s. The courage he showed and the opposition he faced while rebelling against the centuries-old traditions of his homeland by leading his daughter into a public life and, moreover, being proud of her achievements are portrayed in as much detail as Malala’s own story.
A dominant influence in his daughter’s life, it is understandable that Ziauddin Yousafzai is shown as a major character in her narrative of rebellion. Guggenheim is vey obviously intrigued by this father-daughter relationship. The father calls it “one soul, two bodies” and the daughter believes that her achievements would not be possible if it were not for him. Their relationship is, therefore, shown both as a catalyst and a support for her to be able to break free from the patriarchal traditions of Swat. Yet, it is apparent that whatever Malala represents is what her father has told and taught her. His predominance in her life raises an uneasy question: is this not a new type of patriarchy?
The documentary also does not address the criticism that Ziauddin Yousafzai might have put his daughter’s life in danger because of his own ambition. “It it is my fault that she suffered,” he says, as he is shown in one of the earlier scenes pondering over his role in Malala’s ordeal. The director, however, leaves it at that and does not explore the reasons for Ziauddin’s readiness to push his daughter into a territory that he knew was full of dangerous possibilities.
He Named Me Malala has received rave reviews for its inspirational subject but has been criticised for its facile approach towards that subject. The documentary tells the audience almost nothing about Malala that they already did not know. For the most part, interviews and events seem rehearsed and staged. The daughter’s head on the father’s shoulder is an oft-repeated image, as if the director ran out of ways to illustrate their closeness. Thomas Newman’s music score also seems to be a waste and mostly fades in the background, unless your ears are well-trained to catch it.
All said, in a world of arrogant teenage celebrities and pompous politicians, Malala’s simplicity and innocence are nothing less than a treat to watch.
This was originally published in the Herald's November 2015 issue. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.