Familiar to many through multiple appearances on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Malala Yousafzai has a story to tell that everyone should know. She grew up in the Swat Valley of northwest Pakistan, a place where the Taliban had successfully banned girls from attending school. Though aware of the potential dangers, a 15-year-old Malala blogged about her life and circumstances for the BBC. In retribution, a Taliban gunman boarded her school bus, asked for her by name and shot her in the head. Malala not only survived but also has become a uniquely effective advocate for girls’ education across the globe and recipient of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize while still a teenager.
It’s easy to understand why writer-director Davis Guggenheim might want to make a documentary about such an extraordinary figure, especially given his success at illuminating progressive causes in films like Waiting for Superman and the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth. But Malala’s story proves a tougher nut to crack in a full-length feature documentary. Guggenheim’s He Named Me Malala has its heart in the right place but strains to add something substantial to a conversation already in progress, thanks to the best-selling memoir I Am Malala and the author’s ongoing and highly charismatic public appearances.
For those already in the know, He Named Me Malala is most effective when revealing that its subject is still a sweet-natured teen, despite the impossibly difficult circumstances of her life so far. The film may wind up most successful at reaching those unfamiliar with Malala’s story after its theatrical run ends, through streaming and broadcast. In an era of intractable partisan politics, He Named Me Malala is a welcome reminder that some causes cut across international borders and transcend the red-and-blue divide.
He Named Me Malala is currently screening at the Elmwood Palace and Canal Place theaters.