Among the documentaries emerging from the Telluride and Toronto film festivals with the most attention, Davis Guggenheim’s He Named Me Malala follows its director’s apparent pattern of seeking to shine a fresh light on topics that dominate the headlines. The 18-year-old Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai, who has been campaigning since she was 13 against Taliban forces in her native Pakistan threatening to restrict the right of girls to education, survived an assassination attempt three years ago, which seemed only to strengthen her resolve.
The title of Guggenheim’s film refers to her father Ziauddin Yousafzai’s decision to name his daughter after Malalai of Maiwand, an Afghani folk hero who led her people to victory in battle against a much more powerful British army in 1880, but who fell in the fight. Zia couldn’t have foreseen the fate that awaited his daughter. But by spending time with the family – now living in Birmingham, England – Guggenheim attempts to understand where Malala’s extraordinary capacity to inspire comes from.
You resisted doing this film initially. Why?
If it was just the story of the girl that got shot on her school bus, maybe that wasn’t the story to tell. But there were some big questions about Malala that hadn’t been asked. Why was she great? Was it because her father decided it? He names her after a girl who speaks out and is killed for speaking out. He names her after this great mythic character, so is she just a product of his imagination? Also, great characters are defined by the choices they make. So, rather than being defined by something that happened to her, like being shot on her school bus, what’s more interesting is her choice to speak out and risk her life. The movie builds towards that choice and it has two dimensions to it. One is a 14-year-old girl deciding to break out of her pseudonym – she was blogging under a pseudonym for the BBC – and say, ‘I’m going to stand in front of these cameras and risk my life.’ And then the other is her father’s choice to let her. They’re two very intense choices; brave and courageous choices. The movie builds to those choices and what they mean, and I think when people see it, that’s not what’s apparent when they know her.
You’ve worked with some of the most public figures on the planet – notably President Barack Obama and former Vice President Al Gore – and you’ve tackled topics we should all be educated about, like global warming and the education system in the United States. And yet it seems you have a curiosity for finding fresh perspectives on very familiar topics.
I don’t set out to make movies about famous people, though I guess I have. I think what I set out to do is to try to understand things that we don’t understand. Or to find out what is blocking us from understanding things we should understand. With climate change, the writing was on the wall, and certainly there were other movies about it. Al Gore wasn’t unique in thinking about it (in An Inconvenient Truth). But it was almost like everyone decided to be ignorant about it. For me it was about what I could do to make that breakthrough. I’m interested in a realization that’s hiding beneath the surface, and maybe that’s what documentaries can do best, is to try to unpack that and make you think about it.
There are few films about Islamic subjects made by American filmmakers that seek not to demonize that religion. I’ve worked in the Middle East and met more loving, caring Muslims than I can count, and yet it’s true that there’s a fear of Islam that has almost been institutionalized in the United States. Malala couldn’t be a more shining example of the good of that religion. Were you surprised by that, given the way the news media has painted Islam over the years?
I thought that I was pretty well read and informed and I realize now how ignorant I was. Right now, we have a presidential candidate calling the president Muslim and talking about “the Muslim problem,” and there’s no outrage from a very large part of our country. It’s a serious problem, and actually that was never the movie I set out to make. It was a story about a girl and her father. But I’m glad I did, because meeting Zia and Malala, I can see what it’s like to live from their point of view. The Muslim world is portrayed as a monolith that is consistently scary and negative, and as much as you can be an open-minded person, if the only diet of information you get is scary images of men in beards, that starts to play on you. But you come to find out that the Muslim world is not a monolith. To get to present to the world a Muslim family that is loving, funny, irreverent and cool is a very good thing, though it wasn’t the intention of the movie.
You mentioned once that you’ve always been interested in making films about people you like, rather than starting from a position of criticism, which is a mind-set that is becoming ever more scarce. Why is that important for you?
Well, I’m sure there’s more money in negativity. [laughs] My next career move should be to go after somebody! Is being negative more journalistic for some reason? I don’t know. But I don’t set out to make puff pieces and I don’t set out to be blindly positive. I just can’t do a movie about something I don’t care about. In my 20s I loved very, very dark, violent movies. Maybe if I were making documentaries in my 20s, I would be more negative. But now I have children, and I’m almost 52, I want to be inspired. I need to be inspired. I can be very dark and pessimistic, and making movies about people that inspire me is good for me, I think. And I wanted to make a movie about a father and a daughter, and wonder what it was about this girl that made her so confident. My daughter has everything; she lives in a safe house and goes to a safe school, but she doesn’t feel confident. What is it that Zia did that I haven’t been able to do as a father?
Did you figure that out?
Well I started to sort of break it down, because it is mysterious. I think in America we say that girls are equal, but do we believe it or act on it? In America you pay lip-service to certain ideals. “Stella, you’re equal to Miles.” But I find myself at the table, saying “look at this” about something, turning to my son and looking past my daughter. It’s a very small moment, but she gets this cue that if her father finds something interesting he’s going to talk to his son. It’s not enough to say we’re equal; you need to believe it and act on it. The fact that Zia took the family tree, that listed 300 years of Yousafzai men, and wrote Malala’s name on it, that was an act. He acted on it. There were a lot of lessons in this movie for me, that there are many simple things we take for granted in America that this family couldn’t take for granted. They took away her school, which was the most sacred thing to her, and without it she was going to become a child bride or worse, and so school suddenly has this meaning and it tells me something else. That’s the beauty of my job; you can go into these places and meet these families that remind you of things you take for granted.