REVIEW: He Named Me Malala

6 10 2015

He Named Me MalalaHad 18-year-old Malala Yousafzai stayed on the same life course as an average girl in the Swot Valley of Pakistan, she would already be a mother of two.  But thank goodness that the now-Nobel Laureate embraced her destiny as someone extraordinary.  Thanks to a new documentary by Davis Guggenheim, “He Named Me Malala,” her message of hope and equality can reach even more people.

Malala became an international icon when the Taliban occupiers of her town shot (and nearly killed) her for attempting to attend school.  For them, enlightened women threaten their orthodoxy, so this occupying force has attempted to relegate them to purely religious education that will reify their current gendered arrangement.  But by trying to silence Malala’s vocal opposition, the Taliban created a worldwide movement to guarantee the right for all children – especially girls – to receive the education they deserve.

Perhaps most extraordinary about the entire ordeal is that Malala bears no ill will or resentment towards her attackers.  (I, on the other hand, still carry a grudge towards the person who cut me off in traffic last week.)  To simply call her inspirational just does not even begin to explain the impact of her grace.  Personally, as someone who often grapples with how to reconcile their religious convictions with a concern for basic human decency, her effortless deployment of Islam’s tenets as a guiding force behind her compassionate worldview is truly moving.

Guggenheim also makes sure that “He Named Me Malala” does more than saint worship.  In some of the documentary’s most memorable moments, we can see Malala acting like any other teenager.  She giggles at Minion videos, struggles to feel accepted by her classmates, and gets bashful when talking about boys.  Feminist icon though she may be, the thought of asking a boy out still embarrasses her.

The film itself lacks some cohesion as it jumps erratically around to different times in Malala’s life.  Guggenheim relies on animated sequences to depict what would normally be portrayed as recreations, though the unconventional choice works just fine.  Ultimately, any structural quibbles are easily forgotten in the wake of a figure that can so easily bring out the common humanity in all of us.  Heck, she even got Queen Elizabeth II to smile!  B+3stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (October 5, 2012)

5 10 2012

It’s getting down to the wire in the presidential election, meaning the facts are about to become so irrelevant it’s not even funny (that goes for both parties).  No one is going to say they want to fire teachers.  Everyone is going to say they love education and that fixing our schools is a priority for their term and for our future.  But when all that empty campaign rhetoric goes away, what then is left?

That’s the focus of “Waiting for Superman,” Davis Guggenheim’s stirring documentary about the American education is failing its students and setting up the country much bigger issues down the road.  It’s a fearless look at the issue not from a merely by-the-numbers, students as a statistics standpoint; it’s looking at education as a human calculation.  Emphasis on the human.  For that reason, it’s my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

The gripping documentary takes a look into the policies that aren’t working and then finds some common sense solutions.  Guggenheim provides far too many horrifying examples of dissatisfactory education, and I’ll leave the majority of them surprise you in the same way they shocked me.  But I will share some of the struggles of Michelle Rhee, the controversial D.C. Superintendent.

I do share a rather personal connection to Rhee as one of my cousins taught in her district (and to brag on my incredible relative, was feted by Rhee for her exceptional work).  She saw the biggest problem for these children was the district’s terrible teachers.  But she had to deal with the teacher’s union, which would not budge on the current agreement that provided tenure to teachers who had taught for only a few years.

Her efforts were unpopular, aggressive, and bold – but she did what had to be done in order to get rid of the teachers who were falling asleep on the job.  Thanks to people like Rhee, our school systems are making progress.  How many of us can say we are doing the same – or even doing anything to help?  As some would say, “if you aren’t a part of the solution, you’re a part of the problem.”  The future of our nation depends on it.





Random Factoid #450

21 10 2010

Documentaries can often arouse passion and indignation. But do they change our minds or just preach to the converted?

That’s the question that Patrick Goldstein of The Los Angeles Times‘ blog The Big Picture asks, and it’s the question Marshall of “Marshall and the Movies” will try to answer.

There has been an influx of politically-charged documentaries hitting mainstream consciousness as of recent, beginning with Davis Guggenheim’s but actually Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”  Ever since then, we’ve seen movies that tackle touch issues like the economy (“Inside Job”), education (“Waiting for Superman”), dolphin killing (“The Cove”), and Iraq (too many to name) going outside their usual art-house audience.  These are very different kinds of documentaries from the ones that you see at school and on the history channel; they are made by filmmakers with a mission to prove that something needs to be changed and then try to spur you to action over the course of the movie.  The Internet has made it a whole lot easier to give such help, and documentaries have become a powerful tool for real change.

But, as Goldstein puts it, “Documentaries can often arouse passion and indignation. But do they change our minds or just preach to the converted?”

Here’s my take on these politically-charged documentaries.  I am willing to listen if the movie gives me the facts first and then allows me to make my own conclusion.  I don’t mind listening to a differing opinion, but as long as I get some separation, I can bear it.  If a filmmaker can’t do that, I really don’t want to spend my time watching the movie.  I want to be informed, not lectured.





Oscar Moment: “Waiting for Superman”

12 10 2010

Like I said, I’m trying to take a more active interest in the Best Documentary Feature race this year.  While it may have seemed more obvious to start with “Waiting for Superman” and leave “Inside Job” for later, the timing was just too good to do it the other way around.

It seems perfectly logical to think that “Waiting for Superman” could win the Oscar.  The topic is timely – education reform is very much in the public consciousness.  Some have even dubbed it a concern of our “national security.”  The public school system is in need of some changes, and I don’t think anyone will deny it.

Who better to explore these problems than the person who made global warming real and Al Gore a celebrity?  Davis Guggenheim, Academy Award winner for “An Inconvenient Truth,” is back to expose another social issue (although sans a former vice-president).  While Guggenheim is a staunch liberal and very pro-public schooling, he took a step backwards to examine what’s really best for the kids.  There’s a fascinating spotlight on him in New York Magazine on him that I highly recommend reading.  Here’s an excerpt on the concept behind the movie:

“Superman” affectingly, movingly traces the stories of five children—all but one of them poor and black or Hispanic—and their parents as they seek to secure a decent education by gaining admission via lottery to high-performing charter schools. At the same time, the film is a withering indictment of the adults—in particular, those at the teachers unions—who have let the public-school system rot, and a paean to reformers such as Canada and Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools, who has waged an epic campaign to overhaul the notoriously dysfunctional system over which she presides.

According to the Education Secretary Anne Duncan, the movie calls our attention to brutal truths and is unafraid to confront them.  If the movie proves to do just that and the movie catches on with the general moviegoing public, “Waiting for Superman” could very well just be “An Inconvenient Truth: Schools Edition.”  Such could be the formula where the output is Oscar gold.  But does the 2006 equation work in 2010?

The movie’s marketing campaign is setting the stage for Oscar gold by putting the message into action.  There is a whole site for “ACTION” on the website giving ways that the average person can help the schooling system.  Rallying the community behind a cause worked for “The Cove,” last year’s winner, so the idea has proved to be very winning.

But is America as ready for the message of “Waiting for Superman” as they were for the message of “An Inconvenient Truth?”  Both movies involve us admitting that we are at fault for some of the problems; apparently much of the blame here will fall on neglectful adults.  It doesn’t seem to be off-putting to the audiences so far.  In only 103 theaters, it has grossed $1.5 million in three weeks and expansion will continue over the next few weeks.  For the sake of comparison, it’s moving at about half the pace of “An Inconvenient Truth” which grossed $24 million, yet the statistics are still very impressive.

If “Waiting for Superman” gets the full support of the audiences and manages to promote positive social change, this could be an unstoppable force in the Best Documentary race – and who knows, maybe 2010 is progressive enough to nominate a documentary in Best Picture?  I’d say it’s an extreme long shot at best, but if the slate thins out, this is a very good option.  With a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, it has the critical support to get there.

As you can see, President Obama had a meeting with some of the kids featured in the movie.  If “Waiting for Superman” has his attention, you can bet it will get some good Academy attention.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Documentary Feature

OTHER POSSIBLE NOMINATIONS: Best Picture