We delight in this triumphant and moving documentary…
Documentaries can be so serious, so dour. And it isn’t always just the subjects on which we expect seriousness, like the American healthcare system or the failure of the Iraq War protests. Look at how much seriousness topics like, for instance, the Donkey Kong top score or far-out interpretations of The Shining are afforded. The story of the little girl shot in the head for daring to want an education demands more solemnity than we might even be able to handle, especially as treated by Davis Guggenheim of Waiting for Superman and An Inconvenient Truth. It is therefore with some surprise that I report this as the feel-good hit of the winter.
So, for those few who don’t know: Malala Yousafzai was trying to get an education in the tiny Pakistan village of Swat, which fell under the Taliban’s sphere of influence. Since the Taliban believe in denying education to women, and Malala was an increasingly outspoken advocate of education access for all, a confrontation was inevitable, and on 9 October 2012, she and two friends were shot by a Taliban gunman. She was 15.
But it isn’t the overwhelming unfairness and cruelty of the worldview Malala spoke against that the documentary bogs itself down in. Its interest, rather, is in the courage and optimism of its subject. Alive and almost fully recovered – the left side of her face is likely to be permanently paralysed – she lives an almost determinedly normal life in Birmingham with her two brothers, the intellectual father she idolises, and her surprisingly conservative mother. While the film does have time for Nobel Prize ceremonies and meetings with Obama (she intends to let him know her position on drone strikes – namely, that they’ve inspired more terrorism than they’ve curbed – and indignantly responds “of course!” when asked if she went through with that), it has much more time for disappointing biology scores, English vocab practice, and a burgeoning interest in handsome sportsmen and actors.
Occasional animated segments – a technique not used nearly enough in documentary, lending weight and beauty to unchronicled events – build up the mythic stature of the figure, opening by recounting the tale of her namesake, Malalai of Maiwand, shot by the British in 1880, but these segments almost disappear next to Guggenheim’s intensely affectionate scenes of domesticity, of the very sort of life the Taliban would abolish.
By the end we might not have learned much – the film is unlikely in the first place to find an audience among those who need persuading women have the right to education – but we’ve seen one of the most likeable and genuine figures at the centre of one of the most likeable and genuine documentaries of recent years. Guggenheim’s question is not “What led up to this famous incident?” but “What comes now?”. It isn’t a question that’s asked enough, but the inevitable, beautiful answer is “You keep living, of course” – and this film makes that a joyful act.
He Named Me Malala is open in UK cinemas today (6th November), are you planning on seeing it? Let us know in the box below!