He Named Me Malala


Malala Yousafzai reflective.

Malala Yousafzai reflective.

(2015) Documentary (Fox Searchlight) Malala Yousafzai, Ziauddin Yousafzai, Toor Pekai Yousafzai, Khushal Yousafzai, Atal Yousafzai, Mobin Khan. Directed by Davis Guggenheim

Heroes are few and far-between in this age of self-centered me-first consumerism. We’re all so wrapped up in getting more likes on our posts, or having more YouTube followers that we lose track of the important things. These are First World problems admittedly, but when you think of the struggles of millions of young woman who are being prevented from receiving an education, our problems pale in significance.

Malala Yousafzai was named for Malalai of Pashtu, a folk hero who in 1880 at the Battle of Maiwand during the Second Anglo-Afghan War rallied fleeing Afghan troops back onto the battlefield and towards eventual victory at the cost of her own life. She was 17 (or in some accounts 18) years old when she died. Some relatives urged her father to change her name because it augured an early death for the child but Ziauddin was resolute.

As most people are aware, the then-14 year old Pakistani girl spoke out against the Taliban’s edict preventing any female from attending any school in the Swat Valley. She felt this to be unfair and ridiculous but on October 9, 2013 she was shot in the face by a Taliban gunman. Her condition was so severe that she was flown to England for medical treatment on a specially outfitted Saudi jet.

She eventually recovered from her wounds but was disfigured slightly and has issues moving certain muscles in her face, leaving her with a somewhat crooked smile which is actually quite endearing. And she has lost none of her fire or passion as she continues to crusade for the rights of young girls to be educated, from Nigeria to the Middle East and beyond.

Along the way she meets with dignitaries (like President Obama), cultural icons (like Bono of U2) and media stars (like Jon Stewart). Her message never flags and her voice never wavers. She is committed to her cause which in itself is a minor miracle; how many teens do you know that are committed to anything?

&And she is very much a teenage girl, giggling and blushing as she views pictures of Roger Federer and Brad Pitt online, bantering with her brothers and trying to continue to do well with her studies. Ziauddin moved the entire family to England as it was no longer safe for them in Swat Valley as the Taliban has affirmed that they will kill her Malala the moment she sets foot there. What big strong men these are to threaten a teenage girl. They are ideologically bankrupt.

Ideology is important in the story of Malala; when asked if he would like to see the man responsible for shooting his daughter brought to justice, Ziauddin says no. “It wasn’t a man that shot Malala, it was an ideology.” Powerful words indeed, cloaked in truth as they are.

Guggenheim, auteur of An Uncomfortable Truth and Waiting for ‘Superman,’ gets access to the Yousafzai in England and his sequences of Malala at home and relaxed are the best in the movie. The more we see her as a person and the less we see her as an icon, the more powerful her message becomes.

But it’s hard not to see her as an icon, because her courage is so extraordinary and her voice so powerful and clear. If Guggenheim is guilty of hero worship – and he is – it is understandable. The girl’s natural force is like a tsunami hitting the shore but instead of causing damage it is sweeping away intolerance.

Guggenheim uses pastel animations to show the stories of both Malala and her namesake (although there is film footage available – and it is used – much of her young life was not documented and so cracks need to be filled) which can be intrusive at times because they are so stylized, but the animation itself is beautiful. The use of animation in documentaries is rapidly becoming a cliche and great care should be taken in its use for at least awhile.

We do see very little of Malala’s mother and that is on purpose. She is a rather shy and retiring woman, having not received the education that Malala and her father value. Instead, she is more of a traditional Pakistani wife and mother and prefers not to labor under the intense glare of the international spotlight that her daughter must now embrace. It is in no way denigrating her or her values, nor women in general as some ignorant critics have suggested; it is simply that some people don’t want to become famous.

This is one of those movies where the story trumps the technique. Malala Yousafzai is a profile in courage and is worthy of all the praise my inadequate talents can heap upon her, but this documentary is a little bit too by-the-book and too surface-oriented to really be truly remarkable. It’s serviceable and tells you the basic about Malala, who she is and what she has to say. You will come away admiring her but no more than you would from reading her Wikipedia entry and that’s the tragedy of this movie – if it had been half as compelling as its subject, this would have been a powerful experience indeed.

REASONS TO GO: The relationship between Malala and Ziauddin is touching. Her story is one that everyone should know.
REASONS TO STAY: Guilty of a little bit of hero-worship (and so am I).
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images and some thematic material that might be upsetting to young children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Malala is the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize (she shared it with Indian child rights advocate Kailash Satyarthi in 2014).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gandhi
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Winter on Fire

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An Inconvenient Truth


An Inconvenient Truth
“As a matter of fact, I DID invent the Internet and I’m very nearly as tall as the planet.”

(2006) Documentary (Paramount Classics) Al Gore. Directed by Davis Guggenheim

I have to admit not being the biggest Al Gore fan in the world. In all honesty, I was put off by him because of the actions of his wife Tipper in the heyday of the PRMC. Her heart might have been in the right place (as a parent, I don’t object to labeling material that might be offensive to some – parents have a right to know what their kids are listening to) but it seemed to me that she seemed more intent on effectively driving the edgier material out of the marketplace than in providing a needed service to parents. I found her methods heavy-handed, and in some ways, I probably migrated my dislike of her over to her husband. I was truly happy when George W. took the oath of office. Given my 20/20 hindsight, I might not have been had I known then what I know now.

Nowadays, he is the poster boy for climate change and in the process, he’s re-invented himself. Once ridiculed for his somewhat stiff manner, he seems a lot less stiff these days stumping for the planet. The documentary An Inconvenient Truth has won the Oscar, but is it really about global warming?

Yes and no. In some ways, it is about the former Veep and how he came to be so passionate about the subject. Quite frankly, this is a film with an agenda and if it doesn’t apologize for it, it doesn’t attempt to hide it either and it has at least the courage of its own convictions. That climate change  is a reality is incontrovertible; as to the more current debate on whether it is a natural occurrence or not I won’t take sides. I don’t pretend to be expert enough to do that. Let me just say that I have my own opinions and leave it at that.

This is a movie that essentially preaches to the choir; if you were a Gore-hound in 2000 or are an eco-warrior at all now, you won’t be introduced to anything new. If you were a Bush-head in 2000 or are an economic warrior now, you probably won’t be watching this movie. I will say it does make compelling viewing, particularly when Gore is onstage delivering his slideshow (which is enhanced here by additional footage you won’t see in a live Gore presentation).

Still in all, it has an impact that is hard to argue with. While there are those who say that this is less about saving the Earth than it is about saving Al Gore’s career, there is no doubt that the movie is still as relevant five years later as it was when it first debuted – maybe even more so, given the climatological effects we’ve been seeing of late – brutal winters, weather-related disasters and vicious summers. There is no doubt that our planet is undergoing a profound change and that we are either going to have to change our habits now or learn to live with the consequences later. It seems likely that the planet and weather patterns we know now are going to be drastically different for our grandchildren.

I sure hope that a few centuries from now, our descendents – what few remain – aren’t cursing us. I hope they aren’t in despair in some cave, knowing that we had the ability to make some changes and chose not to do so. I hope we are a much wiser race than it appears we are. I hope we have the smarts to listen and the will to make a difference. Otherwise our species will be as thriving as Al Gore’s presidential aspirations.

 WHY RENT THIS: The slide show is impressive. The information here is vital.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Al Gore is a less-than-compelling speaker. A case could be made that the goal here is less to promote ecological awareness than to reinvent Al Gore.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the thematic material here might be a bit adult for smaller kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the first (and so far only) documentary film to win two Academy Awards.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The DVD also offers additional tips on how to reduce your own carbon emissions and help with the climate crisis on a local level. Whether you like Gore or don’t like him, this is a problem that isn’t going to go away. We need to act and act now, and the filmmakers provide a service in giving you ideas and motivation to do precisely that. There is also a Melissa Etheridge music video as well as an update on what’s transpired since the film was released.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $49.8M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Boogie Woogie

Waiting for “Superman”


Waiting for "Superman"

Anthony Black watches his future passing him by.

(2010) Documentary (Paramount Vantage) Michelle Rhee, Geoffrey Canada, Anthony Black, Daisy Esparza, Bianca Hill, Bill Strickland, Randi Weingarten, Bill Gates, George Reeves, Francisco, Davis Guggenheim (voice). Directed by Davis Guggenheim

One of the few things both the left and the right agree on in this country is that the education system is broken, and very badly at that. Comparative test scores with students in other developed countries rank the United States near the bottom in math, science and reading comprehension. However, we are ranked first in one category; student confidence. Thank God for all those positive self-image programs implemented in the 90s!

Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director for An Inconvenient Truth, returns to the subject that he first visited back in 2001 with the television documentary The First Year. In that documentary, he focused on teachers going into the trenches in inner city schools back in 1999. With the “No Child Left Behind” program having run eight years out of its ten and unlikely to reach its goals, Guggenheim decided to look at the problem from the other side – from the students’ perspective. 

He chooses five of them – Daisy, Bianca, Anthony, Francisco (all from poor ethnic neighborhoods) and Emily (from a middle class Silicon Valley neighborhood). Their stories are troubling – and all too common. All five of them have academic promise; Daisy wants to be a veterinarian while Anthony likes math. They all have parents (in some cases they are the children of single parents) that are singularly involved with their education, helping with homework, assisting them with reading, fully invested in the process. The trouble is that all of the parents know that they are fighting a losing battle.

Many schools, particularly in the inner cities but also elsewhere, have turned into what are termed dropout factories. They are unable and in some cases, unwilling to give their students the education they need to be successful in college. With each passing year, kids fall further and further behind until they simply drop out. Even if they do beat the odds and somehow manage to graduate, they are woefully unprepared for college and spend their freshman year taking remedial courses to try and catch up, and very often, they simply never do.

Guggenheim asks the valid question whether the neighborhoods make the schools bad, or the schools make the neighborhoods bad. It’s a fair question; certainly when a single school over a 40 year period drops 30,000 high school dropouts in a neighborhood, that’s going to make a dent.

But why are schools so bad? This is where I think the film drops the ball a little bit, seeming to oversimplify the issue. According to Guggenheim, it boils down to bad teachers and the inability of school districts to fire them, due to issues of tenure. The documentary asserts that the powerful teacher unions have made sinecures of their jobs, leading to a culture that the job is the teacher’s right, rather than a privilege. In New York City, teachers who are undergoing disciplinary hearings for reasons as varied as excessive lateness to work to sexual abuse are all made to spend their days in a waiting room reading newspapers and playing cards – at their full salary – while they await a disciplinary hearing. That wait lasts months, sometimes up to three years and costs Big Apple taxpayers more than $65 million a year.

There is hope, however – the knight charging to the rescue, as Guggenheim sees it, is charter schools. These are schools that have been created by communities independently of the school district, allowing the administrations to hire excellent teachers at increased salaries with merit bonuses and by allowing the teachers to actually teach rather than simply follow an antiquated lesson plan. However, there are very limited numbers of openings at these chartered schools, and a whole lot of parents wanting their kids to fill them, so according to law, lotteries must be conducted to fairly select which students fill those spots. Literally, the future of these kids hangs on a lottery pick.  

There are heroes too, like Geoffrey Canada, a crusading educator who became fed up with a system that resisted change, and went on to found a school in the worst part of Harlem and immediately set graduation rates and test scores that were better than even the charter schools. There’s also Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of the Washington D.C. school system who took on the unions over tenure, and closed down 21 schools in the district. When she proposed a contract that would give the teachers the option of choosing a small pay increase and keeping tenure, or a larger increase with merit bonuses that could wind up raising teacher compensation into six figures, the union wouldn’t even let their rank and file vote on it. I guess they knew how that vote would turn out.

For my part, I think the movie raises some very important points, but I’m not sure they’re really seeing the entire problem. For one thing, I have to wonder if charter school students perform better because they have motivated parents invested enough in their kids’ education to fight to get them into those schools?  Would the test scores be as high if there were children with parents who were unable or unwilling to put as much time in with their kids?

Also, I don’t think that the film addresses a very crucial subject. While there is a high emphasis placed on the need for teacher accountability, it doesn’t do a lot to look at student accountability. In an atmosphere where the attention of young people is taken by video games, smart phones, surfing the internet, cable television and online social networking, school can’t really compete with these entertainments. Getting kids to understand the need for education is crucial and having a son who has been through the public school system, I can tell you that the issues he had were partially of his own making.  

However, I also know the schools failed my son. The administration put a label on him early on as an underachiever and tracked him with remedial kids. While he always excelled in tests, he had a bit of a lazy streak when it came to homework. The school’s solution was to put him in an environment where he was guaranteed to be bored, and once that happen, the system lost him. He is in college now but it hasn’t been easy for him and that he has fought back and taken charge of his future has made me a very proud papa.

What is important about this movie is that it starts a dialogue. There’s no doubt that our education system needs serious fixing, and sometimes we look at the problem, throw up our hands and say “It’s just too big to be fixed.” The movie shows us that isn’t true; with the involvement of parents and concerned citizens all over the country, we can make a difference and with our children’s future – and indeed, the continued economic health of the United States – in the balance, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

The grim truth is that statistically, we are no longer producing enough students proficient in math and science to fill the Silicon Valley-type jobs that demand those disciplines, and over the next ten years that gap is only going to widen. We are having to bring in students from India, China and other emerging nations who have invested a great deal in their education system and are churning out capable students at a rate the U.S. once did. We are on the brink of becoming a second rate nation, and fixing this crisis in education is the best way of preventing that from happening.

REASONS TO GO: One of the most urgent issues in the United States gets thoughtful treatment; while you may not necessarily agree with all of the filmmaker’s conclusions, there are at least some places to begin the dialogue on how to fix our educational system.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie isn’t terribly complementary to teachers unions and those who believe in them may find the movie insulting.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of bad language and some kids may find the themes difficult to comprehend, but this is perfectly acceptable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Those who bought tickets in advance from the film’s website can get a free download of the John Legend song that is played during the closing credits.

HOME OR THEATER: While on a viewing level this isn’t the kind of cinematography that begs for the big screen, the issue is important enough to motivate me to urge viewers to see it in theaters.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Nowhere Boy