Davis Guggenheim’s He Named Me Malala opens with an animated prologue recounting the story of the Malalai of Maiwand, the legendary Joan of Arc-like Afghan martyr after whom the father of the film’s subject, Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, named his daughter. With Malala herself narrating this segment, the animated approach makes sense, especially with the gauzy faux-watercolor textures of Jason Carpenter’s animation designs evoking a sense of childhood myth. But then the animation pops up throughout the rest of Guggenheim’s documentary in order to dramatize the memories of Malala, her father Ziauddin, and others, and one realizes the film’s deeper aim: encasing the young activist in mythical amber.
Even for someone as astonishing as Malala Yousafzai, who survived an assassination attempt and has accomplished so much by the age of 18, the doc’s hagiographic bent is off-putting. To be fair, though, Guggenheim does attempt to paint a human portrait of his subject through candid footage of her at home with her family in Birmingham, England: doing her homework, teasing her younger male siblings, geeking out to certain cricket players. He even asks Malala about whether she has any interest in boys, a question she shyly deflects by returning to her schooling and activism. As trivial as such a question may initially seem, Malala’s response suggests either a strain of conservatism at odds with the progressive ideals for which she publicly campaigns, or simple embarrassed reluctance (she’s still a girl, after all).
Not that Guggenheim is about to explore such possible contradictions; nor does he seem all that interested in, say, exploring Malala’s mother’s apparent difficulties in adjusting to life outside of her Swat Valley hometown in Pakistan. In other words, such attempts at humanization are ultimately overwhelmed by the filmmaker’s heavy-handed hero worship. He’s not shy about featuring his voice on the soundtrack during one-on-one interviews offering, among other tidbits, his interpretation, as if anyone asked him for it, of the reason Ziauddin named his daughter after Malalai of Maiwand, or asking Malala whether her activist life was chosen for her by the Taliban-sanctioned attempt on her life (of course it wasn’t, and she smartly says so).
Ultimately, though, it’s the animation that most rankles. It’s often gorgeous to look at, and some of the more imaginative touches are enchanting, such as the wisps of speech that emanate from the mouth of the animated Ziauddin as he struggles to deal with his stutter during his speech-giving, and the steadier stream that comes out of Malala’s mouth. Whether such harrowing memories should be rendered in this storybook-like way, however, is more open to debate: The effect is to distance the viewer from real-life horrors—another misguided attempt at turning recent history into instant myth. Thomas Newman’s soupy score doesn’t help matters either, as his sweeping orchestral style suffocates in its attempts at uplift.
All of this, far from using cinematic tools to convey Malala’s own view of the world, simply reinforces the halo that Guggenheim goes the extra mile to erect above his subject’s head. His approach to Malala Yousafzai can be summed up by the moment in which, while Malala is showing the director her favorite books on her bookshelf, he directs her to a book that turns out to be her own memoir, I Am Malala. Though meant to be playful, it instead comes off as yet one more aspect of Guggenheim’s premature shrine. The remarkably selfless and humble Malala hardly needs his over-insistent cheerleading.