Friday, October 9, 2015

He Named Me Malala: Girl on a mission

He Named Me Malala (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for grim images and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.9.15

The original plan, as envisioned by producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, was to turn Malala Yousafzai’s saga into a big-screen drama.

Parkes and MacDonald had plenty of experience with such films, having shepherded (among others) Gladiator, The Kite Runner and Catch Me If You Can, the latter also based on a real-world individual whose exploits were larger than life.

During a visit to a rare African school that caters to girls, Malala Yousafzai asks her new
friends what they wish to do in life: become doctors, historians, lawyers? Her proud
father, Ziauddin, can be seen at the far right.
But a funny thing happened, when Parkes and MacDonald met Malala in Birmingham, England, where she and her family have moved for their safety.

“No actor could possibly portray Malala,” Parkes later admitted. “She’s just so singular.”

As a result, Parkes and MacDonald decided that a documentary approach would be a vastly superior means of allowing viewers to meet Malala on her own terms, and in her own environment. They turned to veteran documentarian Davis Guggenheim, well respected for the thoughtful, absorbing approach he has taken to earlier projects such as It Might Get Loud, Waiting for Superman and his Academy Award-winning An Inconvenient Truth.

Smart choice.

Malala Yousafzai is an amazing young woman; she’s also an endearing and captivating screen presence who is quite capable of telling her own story. At the same time, she’s a fascinating bottle of contradictions: at one moment a bubbly teenager clearly embarrassed by her girl-crushes on hunky cricket stars, and then — in the blink of an eye — a ferociously intelligent presence quite capable of delivering a powerful speech to the assembled body at the United Nations.

She’s Mother Teresa, Jane Goodall, Aung San Suu Kyi and Amelia Earhart, all rolled up into one precociously charismatic package. And to think: We almost lost her before learning about the work she’d already done in Pakistan’s Taliban-infested Swat Valley ... let alone the impact she continues to have after surviving a heinous assassination attempt.

Malala was 12 when she began writing an impressively detailed — and, of necessity, anonymous — blog for the BBC, expressing her very personal reaction as the initially welcomed Taliban disciples gradually revealed their true colors: banning music, television and any hint of Western culture; severely curtailing schooling for girls; and insisting that women remain shuttered in their own homes.

It didn’t stop there. When Taliban thugs began bombing police stations and schools, and naming “infidels” during much-feared radio broadcasts, Malala bravely abandoned her anonymity and began speaking out, highly visibly, in the international press. She was awarded Pakistan’s inaugural National Youth Peace Prize in 2011.

Shortly thereafter, the Taliban marked her for assassination.

They carried out that threat when a heavily armed Taliban brigade intercepted her school bus on Oct. 9, 2012. A gunman asked for her by name and then shot her three times; two of her friends also were wounded. They received “only” relatively minor injuries; everybody expected Malala to die from the bullet that shattered her skull.

She surprised everybody.

Reconstructive surgery and rehabilitation subsequently took place at Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital; Guggenheim’s film includes some of that footage, and it’s very hard to watch. The toughest moments, for me at least, come during early physical therapy sessions, as Malala tries — and fails — to catch a large ball gently tossed toward her. She simply can’t make it work: Her reactions are too slow, the eye/hand coordination utterly absent. It’s shattering.

By now, savvy followers of current events know a fair amount about Malala, her already high profile having been enhanced by “good works” throughout the globe on behalf of endangered children and worldwide access to education, particularly for girls. But I’ll wager that very few people realize that her father, Ziauddin, is — and was — an equally outspoken Taliban critic.

Indeed, as he admits during the voice-over narration that he shares with his daughter throughout this film, one day he heard his own name on that dread Taliban radio broadcast.

Ziauddin took after HIS father, famed orator Rohul Amin Yousafzai. Ziauddin grew up to become an educational activist who ran his own school; he therefore encouraged his first-born child, despite her gender, to embrace an education. She apparently needed no encouragement; it’s certainly no accident that Guggenheim’s film crew, during the almost two years they spent with the Yousafzai family, frequently caught Malala doing her homework.

School in Birmingham, she confesses on camera, is much harder than what she remembers of her class work back home in the Swat Valley ... in part because the subjects and cultural references are so much more wide-ranging. One of the film’s many droll moments comes when Malala shares a bulletin board covered with sticky-notes of phrases she has struggled to understand, such as the term “cat burglar.”

That touch of humor is one of this film’s profound strengths, and Malala isn’t the only one with a disarming smile and natural talent for witty one-liners. We get many spontaneous scenes of daily life in the Yousafzai household, when everybody — if only briefly — clearly forgot that cameras were rolling (and then generously permitted such footage to be used).

Malala’s two younger brothers — Khushal and Atal — are a hoot, particularly when playfully dissing their sister ... to her feigned horror. All of them, along with their father, speak very clear English; they’re a lively, boisterous and loving family unit.

Which of course also includes their mother, Toor Pekai. But she’s a more serious case; she doesn’t speak English that well — although she’s learning — and she mourns her family’s forced removal from the lush Swat Valley. Malala also longs to return, but knows that she cannot; Taliban goons continue to vow their determination to exterminate her.

Guggenheim’s biggest challenge, as a filmmaker, concerned the necessity of re-creating Malala’s early life. She and her father have strong memories and are capable narrators, but — aside from a handful of snapshots, which appear from time to time — there’s no record of this time period. They didn’t possess the video capabilities that we now take for granted.

Guggenheim therefore turned to animator Jason Carpenter, who made some waves with his 2011 student short, The Renter. Carpenter and his team illustrate these past events in a soft pastel “chalk” style that evokes classical painters such as Andrew Wyeth. It’s a clever artistic choice, as it evokes memory, nostalgia and a longing for what was lost, while at the same time complementing the mythic, storybook quality that Malala and her father bring to their anecdotes.

Guggenheim introduces this reliance on animation quite ingeniously, employing it to depict the 19th century Pashtun heroine who gave Malala her name. Having initially accepted this narrative device under such logical circumstances, we more readily embrace it later, when repeatedly employed to travel into a more recent past where Guggenheim’s cameras also couldn’t travel.

The film concludes with the dramatic finale to Malala’s impassioned speech at the United Nations, on July 12, 2013: “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution.”

And don’t abandon your seats too quickly, as the end credits begin their march across the screen ... because Guggenheim has built to one more thrilling moment from his heroine’s recent career, and you won’t want to miss it. 

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