Interview - 'Not a Movie, but a Movement': Davis Guggenheim Talks 'He Named Me Malala'

Director Davis Guggenheim, Malala Yousafzai, and Ziauddinuddin Yousafzai in Birmingham, England. 
  Caroline Furneaux / Twentieth Century Fox Film
“The first step is making an inspiring movie,” says director Davis Guggenheim, “and that was the hard part.” The Academy Award winning director of An Inconvenient Truth spoke about his latest documentary He Named Me Malala at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival where his passion and vision for the film palpably mirror the same humanist philosophy of his subject, young Noble Prize winner Malala Yousafzai. Malala, who fights for women’s rights (particularly regarding education) after she famously survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban for protesting in favour of a girl’s right to go to school, shares her story in the film. Guggenheim hopes that He Named Me Malala inspires change one viewer at a time.

“The goal,” Guggenheim adds, “is to try to get millions of kids to see the movie… We have partners [he credits Participant Media, the Malala Fund, and Image Nation, among others] who are not just interested in making a movie, but a movement. And I’ve had that experience on An Inconvenient Truth… Not only is it a great experience, but you can change people’s minds. 66 Million girls are out of schools, 66 million girls are like Malala [was], and so that’s her mission on this Earth.”
A photo posted by Pat Mullen (@mullenpat) on

Malala didn’t attend the Festival herself, but she made a surprise appearance via Skype with her father Ziauddin for a Q&A, and her enthusiasm for the project echoes Guggenheim’s own. Malala herself said she hopes He Named Me Malala lives not as a movie, but as a movement that engages students and creates opportunities for education. The similarity between the answers that Guggenheim and Yousafzai offer on two different occasions works on several levels, including smart PR strategy, but it overall shows how He Named Me Malala is an earnest effort to use documentary for art and activism alike.

The artistry of He Named Me Malala is chiefly evident in Guggenheim’s inspired choice to tell the backstory of Malala’s namesake in breathtaking animated sequences. The film explains in these animated scenes that Ziauddin named his daughter after Malalai of Maiwand, a folk hero who inspired Afghan troops to fight the British before she was killed for her efforts, as he was inspired by her spirit and hoped to inject the same life into his daughter. The film imagines Malalai’s story in lyrical, impressionist vignettes that evokes a strong spirit of resilience that breathes into Malala’s story. “Imagine that,” Guggenheim says while approaching the animated story of Malala’s namesake, “Malala was named after a girl who was killed for speaking out, and then she was shot for speaking out.” It’s an amazing story that one couldn’t pull of convincingly in a script.

“But how do you tell that story? I didn’t have cameras at the battle of Maiwan,” Guggenheim says with a laugh, “so the idea was that instead of telling it from my point of view, I was telling it from her [Malala’s] point of view: how would a Pakistani girl imagine that battle, and so that’s how these precious, lyrical hand-drawn animations came to be.”

Guggenheim goes on to say that the animation affords enormous freedom while telling a story like that of Malala and her family. The art form is in a new turn, which affords filmmakers the ability to create emotional or subjective truths where raw verité footage is unavailable (or inappropriate). “I think what’s exciting about how documentaries have changed,” the director says, “is that for a long they were seen as just journalism—and in many cases they are, and their roots are that—and certainly documentaries need to be truthful and accurate, but I feel that there are great innovators who’ve changed that. Michael Moore, Errol Morris, among many. And now documentaries can be great stories.”

“Sometimes animating a sequence is more effective than getting a ‘real’ story across in other ways,” Guggenheim argues. The lyrical animation gives a more hopeful image and hue to the war and the violence. This effectiveness lets the animated tale ring true with Malala’s spirit in the face of adversity and the film’s own mandate to inspire positive change. “You think about how we get our news about this part of the world, like images of terrible atrocities in Syria: images that come from this part of the world are confusing or scary, and as a viewer, you turn the page,” the director adds. “And I still do that. ‘It’s too much.’ Because it’s impossible to solve. The truth is that story from that part of the world is not that [the recycled media images of terror and misery]. That’s a narrow, negative sliver and, unfortunately, journalists from the west perpetuate that. Malala’s story is very different from that, so that I needed to find a different language to tell her story.”
Malala Yousafzai and director Davis Guggenheim in Birmingham, England.
Caroline Furneaux. / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

Malala’s own language appears in the film through interviews and observational footage as Guggenheim spends time her Malala and her family, and travels with her to key episodes of her inspiring journey, such as her trip to the Syrian border, her famous speech at the UN, and her receipt of the Noble Peace Prize. Viewers might be taken aback by Malala’s candid bashfulness and plainness. She’s modest and she doesn’t like talking about herself, and like many girls her age, she happily Googles sexy sports stars, which inspires some teasing from her brothers.

One pivotal scene late in the film sees Malala hesitate. It’s the one moment where she shows discomfort with the interview process. Guggenheim asks Malala why she doesn’t like talking about her suffering (after all, she was shot in the head) and Malala draws back. “I would say that’s a big moment in the movie,” Guggenheim agrees. “And I wouldn’t say that she wasn’t open… She just doesn’t know how to talk about her suffering, but also, genuinely, she feels that there are millions of girls who are suffering, so how dare she complain?”
 Malala Yousafzai at the Kisaruni Girls School in Massai Mara, Kenya.
Fox Searchlight Pictures

The director channels Malala’s own spirited playfulness as he puts the idea of “suffering” into perspective, with First World problems like spicy aioli taken as suffering despite far graver suffering worldwide. “She feels real gratitude,” Guggenheim adds, “which I don’t quite understand. She lives without bitterness.” It’s true, as Malala’s overall lack of anger in the film is both surprising and inspiring. The director adds that the tragedy that made headlines and brought Malala’s story to the forefront was a pivotal moment for the family. “We found a togetherness,” he recalls Ziauddin saying, and admits that the experience of working with Malala, Ziauddin, and their family was one of the best of his life.

Guggenheim credits the love and trust in the Yousafzai home with playing a key role in structuring the film. “I felt like the story should build towards that choice where Malala goes to the TV station and decides to speak out and call out the Taliban. To do it that way, I had to reverse engineer it and intercut her present day story first with her past story and that was very challenging—you’ll see that the film seesaws between these two different realities.” These realities—past, present, fact, fiction, drama, and animation—weave Malala’s story into a larger collective narrative about choices and action.

“I know at the heart of the story was a choice to speak out,” says the director. “Would I run away or protect my family, or would I do what they [Malala and her peers] did and speak out?” By weighing the risks of duty and loyalty, the film builds on the lore of Malala’s name to arouse future activism.

At the end of the day, though, and at the end of the film, Malala is still a young girl. While He Named Me Malala is respectful to Malala, it keeps her modest and grounded. “It’s dangerous to look at these people like they’re superheroes,” Guggenheim argues, “like they’re too brilliant, like someone sprinkled them with magic dust to make them superhuman. Malala was an ordinary girl. She became more extraordinary by making that choice, so you can see that all of us have the potential to be extraordinary with the choices we make.”

It opens in theatres everywhere October 9 from Fox Searchlight Pictures.
(Read the review of He Named Me Malala at POV.)

He Named Me Malala had its International Premiere at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.
Please visit www.tiff.net for more information on this year’s festival.
More coverage on this year’s festival can be found here.