Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Pakistani activist who was shot by the Taliban in 2012, is now an international media figure (you might know her as Jon Stewart's favorite The Daily Show guest), Nobel laureate and bona fide world leader. Her story is so compelling and extreme that it's easy to forget she's just a kid.
More than anything, He Named Me Malala, the new documentary from Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth), is a reminder of this. The film largely eschews broader issues of human rights and focuses on the story of Malala and her family. We learn that her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, was an educator in Pakistan's Swat Valley region. He was one of the few community leaders willing to speak out against the Taliban's violent suppression of education for girls and women. "It was not a person who shot Malala," her dad says. "It was an ideology." The father-daughter relationship anchors the story, and the significance of the film's title gradually becomes clear.
Guggenheim employs parallel narratives to explore Malala's past, present and the assassination attempt against her. She was shot in the head, on a school bus, and two of her friends were injured as well. Interstitial animations, delivered in a dreamy impressionist style, are artfully inserted at key transitional moments.
The result is a powerful story, well told. The narrow focus is effective, although it feels a little slight for the 87-minute running time. The best moments are juxtapositions: We see Malala and her brothers in their new English home, affectionately squabbling, as siblings do, and talking about one day returning to their beloved Swat Valley.
Then Malala jets off to the U.N. to give a speech. She's so calm, empathetic and self-possessed it's hard to process that she's just 17 years old. There is a light behind her eyes that's wondrous to behold, and it inspires hope. "It is so hard to get things done in this world," Malala says to the assembled world leaders. "But you continue, and you never give up."