It was one of those moments that stopped the world. Images of a smiling girl trickled through the newswires from Pakistan, her bright face heinously juxtaposed by the captions and voices of the reporters that told us Malala Yousafzai had been shot. Her story transcended boundaries of politics, race, and culture as citizens of the world held their breath, praying for her survival. Without meaning to, young Malala became a symbol both of the dangers of fundamentalist zeal and of hope for her generation. For daring to have the courage to educate herself, against the will of the Taliban, extremists in her village sought to make her an example. Instead, they made her a hero.
Malala represents the best of us. She is a symbol of hope the world over, a beacon for the power of education. Though exiled from her home, she continues to speak out against the Taliban and their extremism, she continues to advocate for human rights and responsibilities. Using her young voice, she spreads a message of love while encouraging the education of all people, specifically girls who are, in many countries, still blocked from institutions of learning due to their sex.
He Named Me Malala, the new documentary from director Davis Guggenheim (Waiting for Superman, An Inconvenient Truth) explores the girl behind the symbol, shedding light on her story and offering a humanized look at the face that stopped the world. It’s a daunting task, even for a director who’s previously taken on the crumbling artifice of our school system and the impending doom of climate change. Unfortunately, the film brings little to the table we didn’t already know.
As a recap, He Named Me Malala is a serviceable retrospective. Guggenheim provides his audience with all of the requisite information, without putting undo focus on the horror that first brought Malala to the attention of the world. Like Malala herself, the film focuses instead on hope and positivity. It’s framed as a sort of father-daughter story, showcasing the relationship she has with her educator father and how his influence inspired her to achieve her highest self through learning. It’s an important message, no doubt; one that can be used the world over to push the need for both childhood and adult education.
But it never quite goes deep enough. Instead, He Named Me Malala comes off as more of a series of platitudes that probably won’t change any minds. Yes, yes, education is important. We know that already. And Malala’s story is an inspiration, we know that already, too. Very little is mined from the documentary that wasn’t already on the surface. And while that’s definitely important to know and to study, a little more depth and context would have made for a richer, more moving experience.
I understand the desire to keep politics as far removed as possible from a story like this, but I can’t help but think that politics are an integral part of the full Malala story. Her story is doorway into life in Pakistan and Afghanistan under Taliban rule, and while this is touched upon, the full scope of the oppressive dangers faced by citizens are left unsaid. I suppose there’s a lot to be gleaned in knowing that this is a group with no qualms about murdering a little girl for the crime of learning, but its coverage of the Taliban is surface at best.
Perhaps that’s not a fair criticism. After all, this is a movie about Malala, not about the Taliban. But the two are intertwined in a very real and tangible way, and while I get the desire to focus instead on a positive message of hope—that is what Malala means most—the film feels like a missed opportunity. What could have been a deep and fascinating exploration becomes just another form of hero worship.
Indeed, while you could certainly worship less worthy heroes than Malala, I question the necessity of a film that offers little by way of new information or angles. He Named Me Malala is perfectly fine, I suppose, as an introduction if you’re one of the few people who know nothing about this remarkable young woman. In the end, however, the film is decidedly less remarkable than its subject matter, and that’s a damn shame.
He Named Me Malala is now playing in theaters everywhere.