Davis Guggenheim: Malala, her father, and a revealing new film

The director of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ on his latest film, about an ordinary girl who has made extraordinary choices

<p>Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, the joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, leaves after speaking at Birmingham library in Birmingham, central England October 10, 2014. Pakistani teenager Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012 for advocating girls&#8217; right to education, and Indian campaigner against child trafficking and labour Kailash Satyarthi won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. Darren Staples/Reuters</p>

Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, the joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, leaves after speaking at Birmingham library in Birmingham, central England October 10, 2014. Pakistani teenager Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012 for advocating girls’ right to education, and Indian campaigner against child trafficking and labour Kailash Satyarthi won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. Darren Staples/Reuters

Darren Staples/Reuters
Darren Staples/Reuters

The world’s youngest Nobel laureate, Pakistan-born Malala Yousafzai, takes her name from the famed Battle of Maiwand, in which Afghan forces defeated the British during the Second Afghan War in 1880. In one version of the story, a young Pashtun woman, Malalai, saw her countrymen were losing and marched onto the battlefield, holding her veil as a flag, to implore the troops to turn the battle around. Malalai died, ensuring her legacy as a heroine for generations to come.

In a new documentary that screened at TIFF, director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for “Superman) follows Malala Yousafzai’s new life in the U.K., where she and her family fled after she was shot in the head and nearly killed by the Taliban in 2012. The film, He Named Me Malala, focuses in particular on the relationship between the international education activist, now 18, and her father Ziauddin Yousafzai, an educator who encouraged her vocal advocacy from a young age—and who named her at birth.

Guggenheim spoke to Maclean’s about the film, and about the family.

Q. Did you read the memoir (I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban) and say, ‘I have to make a movie about this’ or how did it come about?

A. Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, who are the producers, read it—an early printing of it, I think a couple of chapters—and they got the rights to it. And they were going to make a movie with it, with an actor. And when they met with Malala they said, ‘Who could possibly play her?’ So when they flew back to L.A., they called me and said, ‘Let’s make a documentary instead.’ And I thought that was a very brave choice on their part because producers want to make big movies. But they decided a documentary would be better.

(I Am Malala co-author) Christina Lamb is an amazing journalist who knows this region in Afghanistan and Pakistan really well and gives this comprehensive, big picture look at what was going on at that time. And I chose to do something really different, which is to tell a father-daughter story. Something very personal, something very intimate.

Q. What about the father-daughter relationship, which is very clear in the movie intrigued you so much?

A. I have two daughters. My daughters are complete mysteries to me. I think a lot of fathers would feel this way; my son is not a mystery to me, but my daughters are a mystery to me. And maybe that’s the nature of fathers and daughters or maybe mothers and sons. And I worry about my daughters. Even though they’re from the West and their schools are safe, I worry whether they will be confident, whether they will feel equal, whether they believe they can do anything. I thought I could learn something from Ziauddin (Yousafzai), this Pakistani man, and I did.

I think sometimes, even in the West, we give lip service to equality. But do we truly believe it? Do we believe it and do we act on it? They come from a very patriarchal society where, in some cases, women don’t have names … But in our society, too, you can say women are equal but do you really believe that? And more often than not, you see girls who feel less than, you see women at work who get paid less, you see women in corporate structures who don’t get those (top) jobs. And I really learned that it’s not enough to just say women are equal, you have to actually believe it, as a father. And act on it. And it challenged me. It’s changed me as a father.

Q. Ziauddin Yousafzai is a surprising figure, in a way. He’s so ahead of his time.

A. He speaks up for what he believes. He’s a real activist in a way America was in the ’60s and ’70s, when people really felt that speaking out was their duty. Now, it’s a little less that way in America. Weirdly, we can learn from this Muslim man in Pakistan how we should be [in the West]. At least, that’s how I felt. But it should be said, the times when he spoke out, they were killing people for speaking out. Some of his closest friends were killed for speaking out like he did. He knew he was risking his life, and he knew he was risking his daughter’s life. That’s an important part of the story.

Q. Has there been criticism of that, of him putting his daughter out there almost as a target?

A. I think it’s a question everyone asks. I certainly asked. Was he right to risk his daughter’s life? He struggles with it in the movie. When you watch the movie, you see the question is asked. I try, in my movies, not to answer those questions. I want the audience to make their own choice. Would I speak out if put in that situation? Or would I run away? Would I just try to be safe and protect my children? I don’t want people to say that I’ve told them the right thing to do. I want the audience to draw their own conclusion.

Q. Obviously the movie is about a father’s relationship with his daughter, but the mother’s story is a big element as well. She’s almost the foil, she’s the opposite. She’s completely uneducated and struggles with language.

A. We just spent time together in California, and her English is vastly improved. She’s really focused on her education. But yes, you can see the consequences of (Malala’s) mother not getting an education. There’s an amazing moment in the movie where (Malala’s) mother is taken to school by her own father but after a few days she sells her books for candy, and you see how that simple act reverberates. There’s a lot of kids who would sell their books for candy, but (Malala’s) mother’s parents let her do that. And you see the other side, what happens if you don’t get an education.

But I will tell you, Malala gets her strength and her moral power from her mother. When you’re in that household, you know who holds the kitchen table.

Q. One thing that surprised me is that Malala comes across as really childlike, especially in those scenes at home. Did that surprise you?

A. She’s an ordinary person. I think the danger in a story about people like this is to think they’re larger than life, that they’re saint-like. It was really important to me to show she’s an ordinary girl and she made an extraordinary choice. Great characters are defined by choices they make when they have to make those choices. I think I’m defined by the choices I make. I think everyone is. If you think Malala is Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King, it’s dangerous because you tend to say, ‘Well, I could never be them.’ But I think everyone can be Malala. I really believe that. I think there are girls all throughout Canada who, if confronted by a tough choice, can be extraordinary by finding their voice and speaking out just like Malala did.

Q. Did you go into it thinking she was a hero and find out she was ordinary, or the opposite?

A. I didn’t know. You don’t know until you meet someone. I’ve done movies about presidents and vice-presidents and rock stars, and you don’t know who you’re going to meet. Everyone’s different. And I think when you meet her, you realize she’s an ordinary person. She believes in doing extraordinary things but she’s just like you and me. In the movie, you see her going online and looking at her favourite sports stars. She frets over her homework. I think that’s what’s inspiring about the movie. You really get to see anyone can be extraordinary if they want to be. She’s from a very small town in Pakistan. No one knew who she was. She’s defined by the choices she made. She put her life in danger to speak out for what she believed. That’s pretty amazing.

Q. One thing that struck me is that the movie is almost apolitical. We know the Taliban was in Pakistan by 2007, but there’s no mention of the political context in which this was all happening. Was that a conscious choice?

A. Yes, conscious choice. That’s why I’d say the book is very different. The story of this region is very complex and very important to understand. But it can also be a storytelling wormhole because you can get caught up in the choices the U.S. government made and the C.I.A. were part of, you can look at the Russian conflict, you can look at the rise of fundamentalism in that area. It’s all very interesting and relevant but it can pull you down these very important intellectual paths. That wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to tell the universal story of a father and a daughter.

I felt if I told that story, that would be the thing that would inspire people to really invest in this part of the world, which I think is a little hard to get your arms around, and once you did that, you could go and learn those other things. In every film you have to make these really strong choices, because you can’t make a film about everything.

Q. Were there security concerns while you were filming? You followed them for a couple of years.

A. I think she’s much safer, now in England. But I think it’s important she stay safe. Clearly it’s not safe enough to go home to Pakistan now, which is where she really, really wants to be. It’s her homeland, her mother country. She and her family would do anything to go home. But right now, it’s still too dangerous.

Q. We know the story, she was shot by the Taliban. The scene in the movie where she draws a diagram of how she was hit, and how her friends were also hit, was really powerful because it shows they were just kids sitting on a bus. But she really doesn’t want to talk about the trauma of it. Can you explain why that isn’t part of the movie?

A. Well, I press her on it a lot. I say, ‘You don’t like to talk about our suffering.’ And she tries to slough it off. I think I asked her two more times. I think for her, she did go through a lot of suffering, but she’s okay now and she feels like there are many, many other people who are suffering. We were at the border of Jordan and Syria and we watched as these families who had taken a long, long journey through the night, through a cold desert with all their earthly belongings that they could carry. She saw children that were going through exactly what she went through. And I don’t think she feels right to talk or complain about her suffering when other people are suffering right now. That’s why, on her 18th birthday, she went back to the refugee camp, back to see a girl we had met the first time, because that’s where she’s happiest. She’s happy with girls who are just like her.

Q. There’s also the part where she says, ‘It doesn’t matter to me that I can’t see out of my left eye. It doesn’t matter in my life.’ Do you think that’s true?

A. I wondered if it was true—just like you’re asking that question, I wondered whether it was true. Maybe that’s just a thing they decided to say. Are they really that way? And what I know, after having spent two years with them, is that they really are a family without any anger or bitterness. But I come from a place in L.A. where people complain about getting the wrong meal served to them. Their soup wasn’t hot. Their coffee was wrong. (The Yousafzai family) are very grateful people. Part of it is their spirituality, and part of it is their deep connection to the suffering of others. That had a profound effect on me. I can complain a little bit, feel sorry for myself.

And I don’t think it’s out of some act of nobility on their part. They’re just truly grateful people. Malala feels she’s been given a second life. Her mother, on her birthday this year, said, ‘You are three years old now,” because Malala was shot three years ago and was given a new life. When you feel the fragility of life, you appreciate it more.

Q. What’s your involvement with the family now?

A. We’re friends. You’re not supposed to fall in love with the subjects of your movie. You’re supposed to keep a journalistic distance. But they’re just wonderful people. Malala loves my daughters and my son and I love her brothers, and our favourite nights are just spending time together, sitting on the floor, eating Indian food and singing songs.

They’re the most lovely people I’ve met in my life, hands down. What a wonderful thing, that my job connects me to this family from 7,000 miles away from my home. I’m half-Jewish, part Episcopalian and now I know this Muslim family. It’s a great gift in my life, a great privilege to tell their story.

Q. I want to ask about the animation. Quite a big chunk of the movie is animated.

A. I’ve been experimenting with animation in my movies. We animated polar bears in An Inconvenient Truth, looking for a place to live as the ice caps are melting, and in Waiting for “Superman,” we animated our statistics. It’s a very useful tool in documentaries, when you can’t express something with the language of documentaries—if you can’t go shoot it, what do you do? Animation is an interesting tool. In this case, there are parts of the story there’s no footage for. The father rolling out the family tree, or the battle of Maiwand where she gets her name, so I considered animation.

But also, the narrative we get from that part of the world is scary images, usually short bursts of scary images from this part of the world where horrific things are happening. But that’s one narrow slice of that story. The real story is much more rich. The Muslim world is, on the whole, very peaceful and yet all we get is this one distorted angle and I find that true in almost every story. I thought that there was another way to portray this part of the world, almost from a young girl’s point of view. The Battle of Maiwand, where Malala gets her name, being portrayed not as a 50-year-old man from California saw it but as a young girl from Pakistan would imagine it. To me that was very evocative, and a very risky choice.

Q. How do you see this all playing out for Malala?

A. It’s interesting. She has the capacity to do anything. She’s brilliant. She got incredible results on her exams. She could go to any school anywhere she wants. I think she represents girls all over the world. But for her, she won’t rest until these 66 million girls (in Pakistan) get an education. She’s a girl with a mission.

Q. In the book, Malala talks about Benazir Bhutto, and everyone knows how that ended. So you have to wonder about the risk she is still taking.

A. She was watching television when she heard this hero of hers, the first female prime minister of Pakistan, was blown up. The hazards are great. But what’s interesting is she doesn’t live in fear. Many people in the West who have everything live in fear. It’s fear that keeps them from taking risks and speaking out and being part of things. It’s counter-intuitive. Why, in a society where you have everything, are you afraid?

They’ve sacrificed so much, their country has been taken away from them. They’ve suffered a lot, but they don’t live in fear.