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Malala documentary opens in the US

Julian TompkinOctober 2, 2015

In 2012 the Taliban attempted to assassinate Malala Yousafzai for her outspoken advocacy of women's education. "He Named me Malala," a documentary telling the Nobel Peace Prize winner's story, has opened in US cinemas.

Malala Yousafzai. Copyright: Picture-alliance/Geisler/D. Van Tine.
Image: picture-alliance/Geisler/D. Van Tine

Davis Guggenheim knows how to spin a yarn. As the director/producer of blockbuster documentaries such as "An Inconvenient Truth" and "Waiting for 'Superman," he's transformed his critical eye into countless awards, box office triumphs and accolades. With his latest documentary, however, one can assume he didn't need to search for histrionics. The real life story of Malala Yousafzai is as engrossing as it is harrowing.

"He Named me Malala" opened across cinemas in the US on Friday (02.10.2015) to mixed reviews. While the "Hollywood Reporter" proclaimed the film a "gripping story" and "eloquently told," the "New York Times" opined that the film is "primarily interested in spreading her message" and "doesn't particularly examine the price of Western superstardom."

"The Guardian" similarly laments that, as a documentary maker, Guggenheim didn't "put up much of a fight," adding that the film is at its best when it sneaks past Yousafzai's otherwise infallible composure to reveal the real girl behind the eloquent spokesperson.

Malala Yousafzai with director Davis Guggenheim. Copyright: Caroline Furneaux/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
Malala Yousafzai with director Davis GuggenheimImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Twentieth Century Fox/C.Furneaux

"Guardian" critic Catherine Shoard speaks specifically of a moment in the film where Guggenheim asks her outright whether she would ever ask a boy out on a date, to which she giggles shyly. The documentary then shows her browsing images of Brad Pitt, Pakistani cricketer Shahid Afridi and tennis star Roger Federer.

Malala Yousafzai was born in Pakistan's Swat Valley in 1997. By 2008, as the Taliban's influence in the region grew, she was already a known advocate for the rights of girls to an education. In 2009 she started blogging for the BBC of her own experiences under the shadow of the Taliban - who had by now outright banned the education of girls, and begun destroying schools.

On October 9, 2012, a member of the Taliban borded her school bus and asked "Which one of you is Malala?" She identified herself and was shot in the head.

Yousafzai miraculously survived, and her family migrated to England - where she was treated at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham. The film largely documents this sometimes embattled transition to a new country and culture, and Yousafzai's longing for Pakistan.

The film also explores the relationship between Yousafzai and her father Ziauddin, an educational activist himself, who - admittedly tempting fate - named her after Malalai of Maiwand, the Pashtun poet and warrior who fought and died in battle against British imperialists in the 1880s.

Following her recovery, Yousafzai was invited to speak at the UN - where she proclaimed that all children have a right to education - and was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. At age 17, she was the youngest to receive the accolade.