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Movie Review

He Named Me Malala

He Named Me Malala
"He Named Me Malala" combines news footage with reenactments and animation to tell the inspiring story of young Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

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Rated PG-13 for thematic elements involving disturbing images and threats. One hour, 27 minutes.
Publication date: Oct. 9, 2015
Review by Susan Tavernetti
Released: (2015)

According to folklore, an Afghan woman named Malala rallied fleeing Pashtun fighters back into battle and to victory against British invaders in 1880. Like her namesake in the animated sequence that opens director Davis Guggenheim's documentary, Malala Yousafzai is a rousing activist. The youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize found her voice as a teenager, using powerful words to speak out against the Taliban. Targeted and shot in the head for advocating that females everywhere have the right to an education, the Pakistani heroine not only survived the October 2012 attack in her native Swat Valley but also continues to personify the lesson of the parable: "It is better to live like a lion for one day than to live like a slave for 100 years."
 
Whenever Malala speaks, the nonfiction film soars. If only the director of "An Inconvenient Truth" and "Waiting for Superman" had found a storytelling approach of equal eloquence.
 
Guggenheim constructs a character portrait, painting his incredible subject in very different types of strokes. Crisp news footage contrasts with out-of-focus, over-exposed reenactments. Interviews offer a more objective perspective than the voice-over narration provided by Malala and her father, Ziauddin. Jarring images of reality -- blood smeared on the white upholstered seats of the school bus in which Malala took a bullet to her forehead -- vies against sequences of impressionistic hand-drawn animation designed by Jason Carpenter. Events do not unfold in chronological order. As a result, the narrative lacks drive and the film seems long and repetitive. Most oddly, the end credits roll as some of the best moments of the film occur in small windows of footage presented as afterthoughts instead of highlighted achievements and speeches.
 
Nevertheless, the many faces of Malala emerge: smart, wise beyond her years, loving, playful, funny, fearless and a fighter. At the same time, it's clear she's also an ordinary girl who has risen to accomplish the extraordinary, whether recovering from the injuries that left her with some facial paralysis and hearing loss, inspiring school girls in Kenya or addressing the United Nations.
 
Ziauddin, too, gets much screen time. Devoted to two passions -- his family and education -- Malala's father was a role model for speaking up and taking action against the Taliban despite the constant threat of violence. He lovingly describes his close relationship with his daughter, referring to them as "one soul in two different bodies." When Ziauddin pours over the family tree, he notes that the ancestral names go back three hundred years -- but males only. Taking pen to hand, he breaks from tradition and adds his daughter's name.
 
Her father may have named her Malala, but she clearly chose the life that she leads. Despite the shortcomings of Guggenheim's storytelling, teens should see this film to learn the power of an education and the difference one courageous person can make to change the world -- turning history into "herstory" in the process.

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