Academy Award-winning director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting For ‘Superman’) gets personal with his latest award-winning documentary, He Named Me Malala, based on the book ‘I Am Malala’ by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb. The doc tells the story of Malala Yousafzai, a young girl in Pakistan’s Swat Valley who became the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate in history, an internationally recognized political activist voicing her support for the rights of women—to education, in particular. In October of 2012, Malala was sitting on her school bus when she was abruptly shot in the face by a Taliban gunman, representing an organization that stands in violent opposition to everything she represents. The film catalogues the aftermath of this trauma and Malala’s refusal to be silenced, honing in on her grand moments on the world stage, as well as intimate moments with family. Last night, Guggenheim sat down with Deadline’s Dominic Patten to discuss the story that he was compelled to document.
Like many people across the globe, Guggenheim (pictured on the left in adjacent photo with Patten) first became aware of Malala upon hearing of her brutal attack. This tragic incidence of violence certainly caught his attention, but it wasn’t until producers Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald (who had run Dreamworks Studios for nine years) approached him that the director started seriously considering the project. Meeting with Malala and family in their new home of Birmingham, England, the producers originally intended to secure the activist’s life rights to make a narrative film, but quickly realized that this had to be a documentary—there was no actress out there who could convey the powerful presence of this young woman.
Guggenheim’s first concern was trying to conceptualize the film, and see if there was enough there to work with. Says Guggenheim, “there are a lot of issues I’m interested in, but does it have enough narrative pieces to have a beginning, middle and end?” The director then realized that this was certainly the case. “I’m acutely aware of this,” he says. “There are so many headlines that go by. I read The New York Times every morning, and I’m so conscious that there are stories where you want to go, and there are stories that you want to turn past.” Malala’s story was the former, and what sealed the deal for Guggenheim was the film’s relevance to his own life, and the questions it led him to ask. “It was really about me having two daughters, and feeling like, ‘What would I do as a father? Would I have let her risk her life to speak out?’ And I still don’t know the answer to that question,” Guggenheim says.
For Guggenheim, Malala is a voice that he can use in his own life, and that he holds up as an example for his daughters. “What you have to understand is that all of us have the instinct to be fearful, as well as the instinct to listen to the voice of tolerance, forgiveness and love. Malala is that voice that we need so desperately right now,” he says, pointing out that while we in California have the terrible incident in San Bernardino to look to, in Pakistan, these incidences of violence are a regular occurrence.
Guggenheim was happy to be a medium through which Malala could tell her story to the world, and was moved by the way in which he gained her trust, even as “a half-Jewish, half-Episcopalian guy from LA with weird hair” who was utterly alien to the family’s experience. One of the most moving parts of the process was screening the film for Malala and family for the first time—“They had no idea what they were in for. I don’t think they’ve seen many documentaries, if any. They were giggling the whole time,” Guggenheim says with a smile.
Asked whether he would consider making a sequel to the film, tracking the young woman’s life at a different stage, Guggenheim expressed his willingness and desire to continue to follow her story, at the very least, as a spectator. “Sometimes you finish a film and you feel like, ‘I’ve seen everything I want to see about this person,’” he says. But with Malala, this was far from the case—“I’ve never met someone more capable,” Guggenheim concludes.