“I thought they’d never kill a child,” says Ziauddin Yousafzai, the father of Malala, the teenage girl shot by the Taliban in her home village in Zwat, Pakistan, for refusing to bend to their rule that women are not to be educated. Davis Guggenheim’s (An Inconvenient Truth, It Might Get Loud) documentary is not simply about a girl’s defiance, but about a father who carries the guilt of putting his daughter in a life threatening situation.
Guggenheim presents two parallel narratives: Malala’s globe trekking as she spread the word of equality post her rehabilitation runs alongside the influx of the Taliban in her Swat valley home in 2007. Initially welcomed, the Taliban soon gained power and enforced increasingly harsh conditions on its subjects, one of which was the banning women and girls from education (they would bomb four hundred schools in the region). When a BBC reporter knocked on doors wondering if anyone would like to anonymously contribute to its blog about life under the Taliban, Ziauddin asked his daughter if she would like to do it. It set in motion a series of events where the outspoken Malala, and her friends, were shot by soldiers in her school.
Inspirational is the watchword here. Guggenheim opens with an animated sequence of Pakistani lore: a young girl, on a battlefield where her countrymen fled from the advancing English forces, rallied the troops and drove them to victory. She, however, did not survive the day. Her name was Malala and Guggenheim finds in her namesake the same driven and passionate soul, a chirpy and extremely smart young woman, unfazed when making speeches to international audiences. Her forthrightness is admirable: when her mother, whom Malala calls uneducated and traditional, asks her to cover her face and never look at a man, she refuses: “If a man can look at me, why can’t I look at him?”
But when Guggenheim attempts to get past the headlines and pushes on personal issues – Does she have a boyfriend? Would she like a boyfriend? – he finds his subject coy. She’s even bashful about admitting she likes Brad Pitt or her favourite cricket player. It’s a little frustrating that we never get to know Malala beyond her message and experiences.