Davis Guggenheim is a filmmaker that chooses sides. His films have taken him from the challenging first year experiences of Los Angeles public school teachers to the on-stage crescendos of the rock legends U2. Best known for the blockbuster climate-change documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Guggenheim levels an idealist’s gaze and an unwavering curiosity on often the most gray of ethical and political quandaries. And he does so with true affection for his subjects. It seems he simply does not know how to make a documentary on someone he doesn’t love.
His latest effort, He Named Me Malala, shares both the story of origin and the here-and-now of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani-born teenager who recently became the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner. The then-15-year-old Yousafzai (she is now 18) was targeted and shot by the Taliban for being an impassioned advocate for girls’ education. She miraculously survived and continues to staunchly champion for universal schooling for all children.
Through interviews with Yousafzai and her family, home videos and news footage, plus the use of hand-drawn animation, Guggenheim ventures beyond the headlines, into the workings of the family’s everyday lives and relationships. What drew in the Academy Award-winning documentarian most? The uncompromising bond between Yousafzai and her equally outspoken father, Ziauddin. It is their connection that is the lynchpin of the portrait.
I shared a recent telephone chat with Guggenheim to discuss his working with myth and memory, unlocking the mysteries of the father-daughter relationship and the enthrall of the possibility of change.
Nonfics: Memory, recollection and myth were part of your creative palette for this film. Can you talk about how the choice to use animation helped to unlock or better convey the childlike, dream-quality of the tale? Clearly, Malala is not being rushed into adulthood by the tragic events and certainly not through your lens or by her family. So, how did that almost storybook-quality help, then, in the sharing of this young girl’s perspective?
Davis Guggenheim: Well, that’s the right question. When I make my movies, I’m really interested in trying to unlock things. I think there is a lot of familiar narratives that come out of this region — violence against somebody, scary things happening. I’m talking in an impressionistic tone on purpose. This idea that there’s this intractable problem that I can’t access, that makes me want to turn away, that makes me want to, what I would call, “stiff-arm” the story. When I sat down with Malala and her father it was like they are telling this story of this paradise. This lovely, innocent, romantic story of their life where they built the school and they were educating girls. That part of the story I had never heard before and I wanted to capture that. And there’s also the story of the Taliban coming in, which is also scary, but I didn’t want all those things that are so familiar to overwhelm their story. I think there is a reason why we have a blindness to that region. There’s a block. We see a picture in the newspaper and we turn the page. We see a story in the newspaper and it feels too tough and so we turn the page. I wanted to find a story that pulled me in. I thought of my daughters. I wanted a story that could pull them in. They have something to learn from this girl.
It gifts the viewer with an extraordinarily positive narrative of a Muslim family. They can’t be diminished or written off as “the other.”
Yeah, and I wanted a real narrative too. I talk about 400 schools being blown up. I talk about people being decapitated and their bodies being hung in the town square. So, it wasn’t like whitewashing something. But, it was about telling this story through the eyes of a girl. I think with movies point of view is everything. And this is the point of view of the filmmaker. Like Waiting for Superman is the point of view of the filmmaker. It’s an editorial. It’s how I think about it. This is the point of view of a girl. I let her and her father tell us the story and the way that they were telling that story led me to those choices. How they were telling stories of Maiwand, which is the opening [prologue] that explains where Malala gets her name, how she was born, and how her mother sold her own school books for candy. The way they were telling it lead me towards this sort of romantic animation.
Your process on this began by audio recording lengthy conversations with both Malala and her father, Zia. Is that a typical entry point into a project for you?
Yes. Over the course of doing a lot of interviews, I realized how when the crew is there that it’s very different, and I wanted to get to that sort of intimate conversation. The kind of conversation that we would have when the crew wasn’t there. So, I learned that if I just sat alone with no crew and just a microphone, I would get much more of a personal style of interview. I start all my movies that way and especially this one. I sat alone with Malala for three hours talking, and was able to get down to very personal content. Some very personal stories to both her and her dad, that they themselves had not told before. And that’s the heart of the movie.
People have suggested and accused Zia of using Malala as a puppet for his own ideas. In the film, though, his energy feels more contagious than domineering or manipulative.
I made a choice to not comment on that. It’s the kind of movie that even in it’s title asks what the nature of this relationship is. You know, it’s on people’s minds. It was on my mind. What is the nature of the relationship? I say to Zia, “You named her after a girl that spoke out and was killed for speaking out.” And then Malala speaks out and is almost killed for speaking out. I mean, you have to ask that question. What makes her who she is? And I want the audience to come to figure that out, by watching them, by seeing their relationship.
Do you consider yourself an educator of sorts or a student of these issues, these lives?
Well, I’m defiantly not an educator, but I know what you’re asking. In many ways, I approach the filmmaking as an innocent, as someone who is just learning about the various people. And as I discover them, these questions arise and that is what leads me to what kind of movie to make. So, if anything, I am a sort of hungry, curious student and I’m just expressing what I’m learning and watching. Questioning Malala and her father, these were questions that I was having myself. They would arise as I would see them.
And the doc was shot over 18 months?
It took two years to make, probably more than that. But, really two years to make it.
You’ve said that a filmmaker must trust their body’s initial physical, gut-level reaction to a story even if their reasoning hasn’t caught up yet. Did you initially have any hesitation or trepidations to tackling this story?
When Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, the producers, asked me, I sort of knew a few headlines from Malala’s story, that she had been shot on her school bus. I had seen the Adam Ellick piece in the New York Times, the short documentary, but I didn’t know much more than that. So, I didn’t know whether I would do it right away. But once I read more, I realized this was more, much more rich than what you just read on the Wikipedia page. You know what I mean? There’s these deeply personal questions surrounding these issues — of raising your voice, the power of your voice, the mystery of the father and the daughter. I have two daughters, and I want to figure out what is the nature of that relationship.
In watching the film, the thing that I kept coming back to was that Malala is not a savior. That this is not hero-worship. That would make her more than human, when she is utterly human.
People criticize the movie for hero-worship. And I get it. And I do love this family. I have no problem addressing that. But I also bring up some pretty large questions about their relationship, and that’s there too. What I’ve found is that if people watch this with a very cynical brain, then you can take issue with it. Why didn’t the doc go into larger global politics of the region? Why don’t you explain the origin of the rise of the Taliban? Those are interesting, great questions and important questions for another movie. But I chose not to make that movie. I wanted to tell a story of this girl and her father. To me that was such a unique and special point of view.
Would you say that you are enthralled by the possibility of change? Of being part of tangible change?
Yes. When we made An Inconvenient Truth, we didn’t know that the movie would have that kind of reaction. In fact, there were many people within the group that felt that it was just going to be a DVD we give to science teachers. Then it had this thing. It had this moment and it was like, well this is a great feeling to not just tell a story but be part of something. To have your work have some extra meaning to it. So, I like that, and I want my work to have an impact. That being said, you have to be really careful not to confuse the role of the film. Activists do activism. Filmmakers make films.
There was something in the other question that you had earlier that I am interested in, though. People have logjams with really fundamental issues. If you look at the Syrian crisis, this immigration crisis, people see the headlines that are there everyday and they turn the page. Then there’s a picture of this little boy who drowns, right? And everyone starts to focus on it. It suddenly unlocks. That was the word you used. So, I am interested in films that kind of unlock things and allow you to be open to something, in a way you haven’t been. And the only way I know how to do that is to do it for myself. I mean, I don’t know a Muslim family. I don’t know that much about this father and daughter. But, if I can unlock it for myself, then maybe when they watch it, people will unlock it too.
This interview was originally published on October 1, 2015.