Tuesday, November 3, 2015

'He Named Me Malala' (2015) directed by Davis Guggenheim

 Malala Yousafzai is so intensely inspirational that were she fictional you'd have trouble suspending your disbelief. She's like something out of legend; the forthright, passionate schoolgirl standing up to the cruel Taliban and fighting for young girl's rights to an education. That would be impressive in and of itself, but then came the cowardly bullet to the forehead, brain surgery, a miraculous recovery, a best-selling book, global tours, meetings with world leaders and, to crown it all, being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Not too shabby for a 16 year old.

Davis Guggenheim's He Named Me Malala latches onto this epic streak right away. Opening with a pastel-painted Raymond Briggs-esque animated sequence, we hear Malala explain the origins of her name in Pastun legend. We're swept into a battle between retreating Afghani warriors and English cavalry. A lone woman, Malalai climbs to the top of a cliff and yells words of encouragement to the beaten men - they turn around and win an unlikely victory over the English, though not before Malalai is struck by a stray bullet and martyred.

It's a fine opening to a documentary, neatly allegorical to Malala's story. These mythological strokes are contrasted with scenes of casual domesticity: Malala teasing her brothers, playing Snap with her family and studying for her GCSEs. The twin poles fuel Guggenheim's documentary, which not only tells her story but explores how an 'ordinary' girl can change the world.

Malala makes for a compelling subject. She's intelligent, passionate and opinionated yet also very obviously a child. There's a humourous disconnect between watching someone give a passionate, clear-minded speech to the UN one moment, and giggling girlishly over Roger Federer the next. In the one on one interviews she quickly proves a careful operator, careful to make sure that conversation remains on her political campaigns rather than on herself.

This throws up a little friction in the piece: sometimes the most interesting character moments are also the least relevant. There's segments where Guggenheim playfully needles Malala over whether she would ever ask out a boy, drawing out nervous laughter and blushes. It's interesting to see her as a teenager rather than as an exemplar of humanitarianism, but the more we focus on her as an individual, the less we concentrate on her politics and effects of her campaigns.

Malala is an inescapably political figure who has stated her ultimate ambition to be Prime Minister of Pakistan. We only catch snatches of this crucial side to her; for example when she quizzes a caught-off-guard Barack Obama about the legality unmanned drone strikes. Guggenheim doesn't dwell on this (or for that matter, show us Obama's answer), merely using the exchange as further evidence of her bravery. Thus, Guggenheim treats Malala apolitically; displaying no curiosity into the ideology that underpins her passion for reform.

That ideology being socialism: 
"I am convinced that socialism is the only answer, and I urge all comrades to struggle to a victorious conclusion. Only this will free us from the chains of bigotry and oppression." - Malala's 2014 message to Pakistan's International Marxist Tendency.
He Named Me Malala instead seeks to claim Malala as a paragon of soft humanism, viewing her activism firmly through the a neoliberal prism. Guggenheim presents a world of stark good and evil, ignoring the geopolitical climate that fuels the quasi-fascist groups that Malala pits herself against. To hear the film tell it, the Taliban, Boko Haram and their ideological brethren are just 'the bad guys', existing in a vacuum and purely to spread fear.

What that adds up to is a feel-good experience for Western liberals: the documentary equivalent of a warm, snuggly blanket to wrap yourself in. Then again, at least it succeeds at doing that. 

I think He Called Me Malala, with its dreamy animated interludes, simplistic morality and straightforwardly inspiring narrative, is a perfect film to show in schools, giving children a taste of what standing up for your opinions can achieve and a beginner's guide to oppression.

For adult audiences it's a touch too saccharine, especially when the syrupy string score kicks in at the emotional high-points and (god help us) a dreary Alicia Keys song specially written for the movie begins blaring out. Ultimately, He Named Me Malala is a film that wants you to feel more than think: and as such does an unintentional disservice to its subject.


He Named Me Malala is on general release from 6th November.

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