A for Effort
The notable lack of a critical consensus continues to grow, everyone is still talking about that scene with the cat, and the jury is out as to whether that ending works or not. In short, we still find ourselves in fertile territory for counter-programming, which this week takes the form of Davis Guggenheim's He Named Me Malala.
I have to be honest and say that at any other time of year this isn't be a film I would be itching to check out, preferring as I do a half-decent (or even one-sixteenth-decent) Jason Statham vehicle to a high-minded documentary about a teenage Nobel peace prize winner – not least because, in this particular case, it's virtually impossible to do any gags. But there you go, this week it was a choice of this film or something about Bradley Cooper making a mess of running a kitchen. So off I went to see He Named Me Malala, inappropriate comment detector and self-censoring software set to maximum.
So who is this 'He' guy and who is he naming Malala? And why is it significant? Hmmm, this could get confusing. 'He' is Malala's dad, Ziauddin Yousafzai, a Pakistani educator and diplomat but best known as, um, Malala's dad. Malala herself is – as you are probably aware – a teenage advocate for education, noted for almost dying after an attempt on her life by the Taliban, and for being the youngest person ever to win a Nobel prize.
It turns out that the name Malala is of some significance in the Yousafzai's home culture, as it was the name of another inspirational young woman who did her best to inspire the Afghan people to acts of courage and conviction back (one presumes) in the 19th century. (The awkwardly ironic fact that the historical Malala was encouraging Afghans to engage in armed resistance against an occupying British army is skipped over tactfully.) This is explained at the top of the movie, thus quietly asking the question which seems to hang in the air throughout, and which we shall return to.
Guggenheim's film isn't afraid to pursue a number of different threads and proceeds in a fairly non-linear manner throughout. Malala's work as a global advocate for education is covered, with various trips off to Africa, the Middle East, and so on, but there is also a lot of fairly intimate material depicting everyday life in the Yousafzai household (unable to return to Pakistan, they seem fairly well-settled in Birmingham). A fair bit of family history is also touched upon, as well as the story of how the Taliban came to ascendancy in the Swat valley where they originally lived.
The net result of all this is that Malala comes across as much more of a rounded human being than the iconic figure who's somewhat familiar from book covers and TV news bulletins. Scenes of her arm-wrestling her brother or doing card tricks are undeniably charming, but in the interviews which dot the film she is astonishingly self-possessed and undeniably comes across as a very tough and very smart cookie – as one might expect, given what I suppose we could call the authorised version of her story.
However, and rather surprisingly, this movie isn't just a hagiographical advert for Malala and the various enterprises with which she is connected: at one point vox pops from Pakistan feature, in which various people decry the family for leaving the country, claim she is irrelevant, and even suggest that the Malala who has risen to such prominence is essentially a fictional character, that she is basically just playing a role created for her by her father.
Rather surprisingly, it's an accusation the film repeatedly touches upon in a number of ways – the closeness of Malala to her father is one of themes most emphasised, and he always seems to be around when she's making a public appearance. It was he who was responsible for her first becoming a BBC news blogger, for instance. Clearly a formidable orator himself, is it really credible to suggest that Malala made her own life choices completely independently of him? A repeated moment has Ziauddin Yousafzai reflecting on the time after he was shot, and considering his own responsibility and perhaps culpability.
To be fair, Malala herself completely denies any suggestion she's just some sort of a puppet, and she comes across in such a way that this is entirely credible. Listening to her answer the question of whether she harbours any anger towards the men and ideology that tried to kill her, and indeed left her with permanent health problems, I couldn't help but be completely convinced by her sincerity: it is one of many profoundly moving moments in the film.
The film's impact is probably helped a lot by the fact it has clearly been directed by someone who understands what it means to make something genuinely cinematic: I think there is an element to this film that would be lost were one to watch it on the small screen, no matter how much like a TV documentary it looks. Certainly much of it is shot and edited like a 'proper' movie (this may explain why JJ Abrams gets a credit at the end: no doubt he was the movie's lens flare consultant, or something), and the decision to include some rather charming animation to accompany the sequences for which actual film is not available only adds to this.
I doubt whether the makers of He Named Me Malala were primarily motivated by the belief that they were going to make a ton of money, even more than I doubt that they will. Nevertheless, this is a powerful and engaging film about someone who, however you cut it, represents an important issue in the world today. Worth checking out.