‘Malala’ documentary fails to reach level of its subject

By Bob Bloom

“He Named Me Malala” is a powerful and inspirational documentary.

That is no surprise, because it follows Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban on a school bus for speaking publicly in support of education for girls.

That Malala survived is a miracle. What is even more astonishing is that, at her young age, she has become a symbol and a spokesperson for education — girls and boys — around the world.

It’s too bad that the documentary is not worthy of its subject.

The film seems to simply scratch the surface with Malala in discovering how this young woman became so brave. It does not burrow deeply enough into the family undercurrents.

The movie concentrates, of course, on Malala, and also gives much screen time to her father, who is a big influence in her life, as he, too, spoke out against the Taliban.

“Malala” becomes repetitious as it follows the teenager and her father as they travel from event to event as she speaks about her cause.

We see very little of her home life, but what we do observe shows some troubling aspects that the film seems to gloss over.

Malala’s mother, who married young, did not get an education. She is a simple woman who misses her friends and village in the Swat Valley, after the family fled from Pakistan to England.

It is not openly voiced, but it appears she disapproves of — or fails to understand — her daughter’s activism.

Plus, her brothers seem not to be that informed nor interested in their big sister’s crusade. Malala’s father looks as if he ignores them because he spends most of his time traveling with his daughter.

Malala comes off as a smart and compassionate girl. She has forgiven those who tried to kill her, and devotes most of her time and energy to her crusade.

Because of her fame and hectic schedule, Malala jokes that her schoolwork suffers and it is difficult to make friends.

Two of her friends also were shot on the bus, but they receive scant attention. We don’t know if they still live in Pakistan or, like Malala and her family, have had to leave the country.

One of the film’s main flaws is that director Davis Guggenheim obviously admires Malala, thus he fails to ask her tough questions or delve into the family’s dynamics.

Much time is wasted on animated sequences that help tell Malala’s story, as well as that of her ancient namesake. Guggenheim should have abandoned this after the opening tableau.

The film also would have been better served if Guggenheim had filmed fewer sequences of people around the world fawning over Malala.

That may sound insensitive, considering the ordeal she has been through. But the portrait Guggenheim paints is so safe and bland that Malala is ill served and, as a result, the movie comes off as a very long advocacy piece for her campaign.

“He Named Me Malala” would have been a much-improved film if Guggenheim had been more objective and given us a fuller and deeper portrait of this extraordinary and exquisite role model.

“He Named Me Malala” is definitely worth seeing. It also is a movie to which children should be exposed, as it may motivate some to take full advantage of the educational opportunities afforded them.

It’s a shame that Guggenheimer’s film could not ascend to the level of his subject. Malala deserves better.

Bloom is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. His reviews appear at ReelBob (reelbob.com) and The Film Yap (filmyap.com). He also reviews Blu-rays and DVDs. He can be reached by email at bobbloomjc@gmail.com or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom. Other reviews by Bloom can be found at Rottentomatoes: www.rottentomatoes.com.


2½ stars out of 4
(PG-13), disturbing and violent sequences, mature thematic elements

  • ReelBob

    Share your thoughts on this documentary at ReelBob.com.