Telluride 2015 Review | ‘He Named Me Malala’ is Out of Sync

Malala Yousafzai is an extraordinary person. If the film He Named Me Malala tells more people about her story, perhaps by visiting, then that’s great. But I have a few issues with the way director Davis Guggenheim chose to portray that story.

As a girl in Pakistan, Malala attended school and encouraged other girls to do so. In a Taliban attack on her school bus, she was shot in the head. She survived and recovered to become an advocate for women’s rights. The Taliban has still issued a death threat against her should she ever return to Pakistan.

This is a story it would be easy to learn about by Googling, but for some reason Guggenheim eases us into the details of her shooting. It’s as if they need to break it to the audience gently, like we’re the ones who need to be sheltered from the harsh realities of this story. 

The film tries so hard not to preach that it loses focus. It’s a good instinct not to make this an issue movie, but it can still have focus. Instead it plays as a series of episodes about the Yousafzai family home life, without much about her work in activism. I get it, she’s a full human being with wants and needs, not just a spokesperson, but those shouldn’t seem like two separate stories when they are all the same person. 

There’s a reason it comes across disjointed. Guggenheim chose to tell Malala’s story nonlinearly, and I don’t think it works. I honestly got no sense that we were jumping back and forth in time until a significant event was repeated. For all I know her school tests and Nobel Peace Prize were happening simultaneously. If they weren’t, juxtaposing them only deprives them of context. I’ve never seen the chronological version, but I can’t imagine how witnessing her natural progression from tragedy to empowerment would be a problem. 

The strongest angle in the film is the one on the education we take for granted. Malala loves school, and it’s not like she’s a straight A student. She just embraces the opportunity, so maybe we in the audience shouldn’t moan so much about high school. 

The biggest problem I think is when Guggenheim creates precious moments. I’m not opposed to documentarians inserting themselves into their films, but that’s not what this is. We hear his voice on occasion in interview soundbites. One that stands out: he asks about the books on her shelf and prods her until she shows her own book which she autographed to herself. Now, other scenes make sense. You would ask a teenage girl about dating and boys. Her reaction is priceless, but prompting her to show something to the camera, and including your own side of the conversation no less, feels contrived.

I don’t think it’s exploiting her story, but he is choosing moments form the years he spent with her. Some of those choices may not have been the right ones. Fortunately, I think the life and spirit of Malala Yousafzai is conveyed in all of her natural moments, as well as those with her parents and siblings. And again, there’s always

Image via Fox Searchlight

Fred Topel is a veteran journalist since 1999 and has written for CraveOnline since 2006. See Fred on the ground at Sundance, SXSW, Telluride or in Los Angeles and follow him on Twitter @FredTopel, Instagram @Ftopel.