Telluride: 'Malala' Doc Wows as Fest Opener

Oscar-winner Davis Guggenheim's powerful portrait of Malala Yousafzai, the activist fighting for education for teens,  kicked off the fest's 42nd edition on Friday afternoon as the "Patron's Preview."
Courtesy of Scott Feinberg
Malala Yousafzai participates in a Telluride Film Festival Q&A via satellite from England

He Named Me Malala, Oscar-winner Davis Guggenheim's documentary about the remarkable young activist Malala Yousafzai, kicked off the 42nd Telluride Film Festival on Friday afternoon as the fest's annual "Patron's Preview" — a first-anywhere screening of a highly-touted Oscar hopeful that is open only to the fest's biggest backers — and it was very warmly received at a jam-packed Chuck Jones Cinema.

After its credits rolled, the audience rose to its feet when Ken Burns, the acclaimed documentarian who also serves on the fest's board, summoned Guggenheim and Yousafzai's father, Ziauddin, to the stage for a Q&A about the "wonderful film" — and then surprised everyone by revealing that Malala herself was joining in via satellite from Birmingham, England, where the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner is currently in school. She noted during her remarks that she recently got straight A's on her exams and, for her, that was even better than the Nobel.

Ninety-minutes earlier, the afternoon began with remarks by festival exec director Julie Huntsinger, who cracked, "This film is the worst-kept secret of the Telluride Film Festival — thanks Scott Feinberg!" (This blog broke the news this morning that Malala would be the Patron's Preview, and apologizes for any frustration that caused Huntsinger.) Huntsinger then introduced Guggenheim — who won the best doc feature Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth and received widespread acclaim for another education-related doc, Waiting for Superman. He, in turn, thanked the Yousafzai family for working with him over the past two years. "It really is me and Malala and Ziauddin telling this story together."

Malala, which will be released by Fox Searchlight on Oct. 2, is about a special father-daughter bond, Islam and Islamic extremism, feminism and sexism, tolerance and forgiveness and, frankly, how sudden fame can drastically change the life of not only the person who has become famous but also those around them. Employing techniques both traditional (talking-head interviews, archival footage, etc.) and non-traditional (numerous sequences of the film are animated), it is a glossy, engaging infomercial about a real-life heroine who also happens to be, in many respects, a regular teenage girl.

As for how the film will be received by the Academy, it is really hard to say. If it makes it past the doc branch and gets nominated, I imagine it would be the frontrunner to win, since the full Academy, which has determined the winner for the last two years (20 Feet from Stardom and Citizenfour), has demonstrated a strong inclination for populist fare with underdog subjects they can root for. But the doc branch itself is a tougher, more conservative crowd, and may bristle at things like the swaths of animation and cutesy talking-head stuff. Only time will tell.

One thing that is beyond dispute, though, is that it is a good thing that a film like this — as well as another new doc, A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story, also about an impressive young woman who has had to overcome terrible adversity — exists. At a time when gender inequality still pervades much of the world — Hollywood being no exception — it's nice to have a film that reminds people of the amazing things that girls and women can achieve in spite of the considerable hurdles they have to face.