An interview with HE NAMED ME MALALA director, Davis Guggenheim.
Like most everyone else, Davis Guggenheim, the Academy Award winning director of AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH and WAITING FOR SUPERMAN, first learned about Malala Yousafzai and how she was shot in the face at school by the Taliban, in passing. And at first, he didn’t think much of it, as sadly this kind of violence is not out of the ordinary. When he learned of what led up to her shooting though, he realized that her ordeal and the journey that followed were in fact truly extraordinary.
“I think great characters in movies are defined by the choices they make,” Guggenheim tells me when we meet at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, where HE NAMED ME MALALA premiered the day prior. Malala was shot not because she was a girl who dared to study in Pakistan at a time when the Taliban forbade it. Malala was shot simply because she chose to speak out for what she believed in.
Malala had been anonymously feeding the BBC with accounts of what her life was like in hopes of exposing the injustices the Taliban was inflicting on her home to the world. When she was found out, she was shot. She then spent months in hospital and, after extensive rehabilitation, she healed and set out to take her rightful place in the world as an icon and leader on education. And while Guggenheim believes that she is an incredible voice for the millions of women around the world who have no say over their own right to education, he also wanted to make sure people who saw HE NAMED ME MALALA knew that past the Nobel Peace Prize winner is a girl who is still trying to find her way in the world.
“The thing about Malala herself is that she’s an ordinary girl. It’s dangerous for us to make these people into super humans. Now you think she’s this icon who went through this extraordinary thing. But when she was in the [Swat district of Pakistan], she was a normal girl. The girl sitting next to her at school could have done the same thing but she didn’t. [Malala] chose to risk her life. Her father chose to risk her life. That made the story extraordinary. They weren’t born extraordinary.”
How much influence Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, himself a passionate political activist, had over her choices is a central debate in HE NAMED ME MALALA, which is part based on Malala’s book, “I Am Malala”, but the title itself infers that Malala’s father chose her destiny from the moment he named after Malalai, a young girl who spoke out for what she believed in during the 1880 war between Afghanistan and the British. Malalai was killed for her actions.
“I try to raise the question and then have the audience answer it,” Guggenheim explains. “I think anyone can draw their own conclusions. I have my own feeling about it but that doesn’t matter. It is a question in the movie. I ask her very directly; Malalai made a choice to speak out and died for speaking out; Malala didn’t choose to be named Malala. Was your father pulling the strings?”
Malala flat out denies this and takes full responsibility for her choices. Of course, it isn’t as simple as that but her strength and resolve are unflappable.
This grey area is one of the things that makes HE NAMED ME MALALA so compelling. “Very early on, I was like, this is a father daughter story,” Guggenheim states. “Clearly I could have told a geo-political story about the rise of the Taliban, the rise of fundamentalism and the West vs. East. I felt like that in itself is extremely interesting, and it’s told pretty well in the book, but I wanted to tell something that was very intimate. As a father, I wanted to know how to be a good father. If I met them and asked them questions, maybe I could gleam something from them.”
Guggenheim has two daughters and one son. And now, thanks to this experience, he finds himself asking, “Am I as good a father to my daughters as I am to my son?”
Not only does HE NAMED ME MALALA present Malala in a very different light than we’ve seen prior – she is seen teasing and tormenting her younger brothers and looking at boys online – but it also serves to remind audiences just how passionate she is about women’s rights to education, as well as just how selfless her journey is.
“Counter to what you would expect from someone who has had to endure what she has, you’d think she’d be angry but she feels grateful,” describes Guggenheim of Malala’s general demeanour. Even when pressed to speak about her suffering in the film, she is noticeably uncomfortable, and Guggenheim thinks he knows why. “I think it wasn’t that she had an answer that she wouldn’t say. I think she honestly couldn’t access it as a person. This is only speculation but part of it could be from the trauma, but also generally part of it, she feels like there are many, many girls right now suffering. Part of her feels like why would I complain if there are other people who are suffering more than I am right now? I think that’s what she would say right now if she were here.”
With that, Guggenheim confirms what many of us already felt about Malala, that she is a beautiful soul and that the world needs her right now. He concludes by saying, “I think of any person I’ve ever made a film about, she’s the most open person I’ve ever met.”
HE NAMED ME MALALA is now available to rent or own.