The West’s Great Game: “He Named Me Malala”

Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan, much like Malalai Joya of Afghanistan before her, is a remarkable person with an important critique of US warlords, invasions and bombings in the Middle East. But if you saw He Named Me Malala you’d never know it. With animated pastel, Disney-styled paintings and illustrations, the film opens with a scene from one of the Anglo-Afghan wars. “It is better to live like a lion for one day, then to be a slave for 100 days,” voices over the artistic and captivating drawings. The film claims a “documentary” genre and label, but somehow I sense that is a generous and loose description.

Malala Yousafzai is an incredibly impressive person and heroic figure. She crusaded for female education and started a blog for BBC on the topic, and it nearly cost her life at the hands of the Taliban. I read I am Malala, co-authored by Christina Lamb, over the summer months and thought it was a remarkable story, really. In this book, the Pakistani heroine mentions the impacts and historical contexts of the United States’ actions in the region that lent to the development of fundamentalism and militarism, while contemplating the impacts of the occupation. Documentaries are designed, however, to make people think. They are supposed to attempt to inform the viewer of the subject’s life work and contributions. Often they add controversial historical elements to make the story more complicated. This films fails miserably in this regard.

Why does this film go out of its way to deny that Malala writes critically of Carter through Bush administrations’ foreign policies? How can a so called “documentary” overlook her astute criticisms of CIA-trained jihadi movements and spend all but two seconds on Obama’s US drone policy? Malala writes of the “ordinary diplomats” carrying guns, just as she is critical of the native’s regional and tribal violence. The answer, of course, is that this is not a documentary, but a palatable story sanitized for American and western audiences. I understand that it was a money maker designed for PG-13 mass crowds, but the branding of Malala is unfortunate. What Juan Cole refers to as “essentializing” Muslims explains why her own critical views of imperialism serve as an afterthought.

The films covers briefly a scene in regards to Boko Haram, again divorcing Western influence from this additional flashpoint. Again, the message is loud and clear: in some respects, Islam lacks a moral foundation due to its sexism, and what the world needs now is girl power. The End. Not so fast, for this oversimplification is offensive, and Malala Yousafzai could easily point out, along with the victims of Nigeria, how the west turns a blind eye while propping up Nigerian leaders for lucrative oil and gas deals.

I don’t expect a music video or movie to uncover historical truisms, but I do expect it of a documentary. If there is time to show Malala pictured with U2’s Bono and appearing on “The Daily Show,” additional background information can be included to better tell the story.

It is nice that the film shows Malala’s family and the relationship with her father. Much of the film discusses the impact and influence of family and the shaping of identity. High marks go out to the film in this regard. It was also a nice and clever touch to show Malala relatable to children and young adults. The film even shows her humility and open mindedness in receipt of a 73 percent on a biology test.

Americans are good at the practice of essentialism at the cost of education. I can recall receiving the archetype of Hellen Keller in grade school. Keller was an ardent socialist and reformer of worker’s rights. This education got little play, but Keller’s heroic tale was branded for commercial and entertainment purposes. The noted work of sociologist James W. Loewen highlights the consequences of teaching and learning like this.

Yes, Malala won the Nobel Peace Prize, but with the Western condition that it be shared with a citizen of India to better strengthen the international geopolitical ground in the region. Did you know that Yousafzai gave the prize money to rebuild Gazan schools? Of course not; this would be an inconvenient truth in the eyes of the liberal intellectual elite. Famed author and social critic Arundhati Roy lauds Malala rightly, but not her Western audiences. Roy sees Malala’s image being used as a political tool for global politics and the great game of cultural imperialism. The name “Malala” means both sadness and bravery. This is apropos in regards to the film.

I liked it in many respects, but in the end it was ripe for deconstruction.