Director Davis Guggenheim Talks About The Challenges Of ‘He Named Me Malala’

Malala Yousafzai is well known as the young woman who was shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking out against their rule of her native Pakistan. She’s also known for her impressive advocacy on behalf of women’s education, for being the youngest Nobel Prize laureate, and as a charming guest on talk shows like The Daily Show and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert — where she recently revealed she was a magician of sorts. Now the more intimate side of Yousafzai — and the family that raised her — can be seen in the documentary He Named Me Malala.

When producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald were presented with her book proposal with an eye toward turning it into a film, they soon realized Yousafzai’s life would work better as a documentary than a biopic. “Who in the world could play Malala?” they asked. They then called on Davis Guggenheim — director of An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for ‘Superman’ — who spent a significant time with the Yousafzai family soon after Malala was shot.

I spoke with Guggenheim, Parkes, and MacDonald about what it’s like to hang out with this impressive 18-year-old, her family, and her continued influence and advocacy.prodshots-16 copy.jpg

20th Century Fox


When did you first meet Malala?

Davis Guggenheim: I flew to Birmingham, England, took a cab to their house and rang their doorbell. And she answered the door. They let me in and I realized, “Oh my gosh, this house is crazy.” There were very loud voices and humor and teasing. I was like, “Okay, I like this family.” And so I sat down and did an interview, just like this, no camera crew. Just an audio interview. We sat in her little office where she has the Post-it notes and just talked for three hours. Immediately, the sound of her voice was just so beautiful and mellifluous, melodious? It was beautiful. The sound of her voice was beautiful. And she was like an open book. She wanted to talk.

She felt open to you right away.

Well, what I said to them, to both her and her father, was, “Let me help you tell your own story.” That’s very different I think from a lot of documentarians. Sometimes people start with a very oppositional relationship. Let me chase you as far as I can chase you, and your job is to run away and hide. I was like, “No, no, no, this movie will be told through your voice.” And so if you dissect the movie, it’s just their voice telling the story, and then those interviews became the little puzzle pieces that became the movie.

Before you even knocked on their door, did you have an idea or a picture of what you wanted this film to be like?

I go off little sort of vague notions. I instantly knew it should be very personal, like a father/daughter story. That the problem with stories of this kind is they get so geopolitical. They get into this, the rise of fundamentalism and the Taliban. You tend to forget that there are people involved. And I wanted to tell a very personal story. And I also have two daughters, so I wanted to know what it was between the father and the daughter that created this incredible phenomenon — this girl who felt courageous and strong and could speak for the world. I have two daughters and I don’t feel like I could do that here in California. My 14-year-old is very shy. And here’s Malala growing up in this patriarchal society, and what gave her this sense of mission and sense of courage and strength? I want to do that. I want my daughter to be like that.

What do your daughters make of Malala? And do you talk to their peers about what they think of her?

My daughter’s been texting me, “I want to bring four friends to the screening tomorrow night.” I said, “There’s no more room.” She said, “I want to bring just four!” [laughs]. They’re very proud of it. They’ve met her and are very proud, and it’s had an affect on them. To see a girl, it’s so interesting that even in the West where there are comfortable schools and they’re safe that there are still these invisible forces that make girls feel less than, and you can’t see them. So seeing Malala speaks to them in a way. This may be the one movie I’ve made that they’re interested in [laughs].

There was an interesting point in the movie where you call her out for liking cricket players for reasons beyond cricket, sort of teasing her about having crushes on them. What made you press her on that?

The first thing I felt when I met her was, “Wow, she’s got this presence.” She has this inner strength. And then the next thing you think is “Oh, she’s just this ordinary girl,” so I wanted to capture that duality. On one hand, she’s going to the White House and asking the president questions that no one else would ask, questions grown men wouldn’t ask him. And on the other hand, she’s at home arm wrestling her brothers and looking at Brad Pitt on the Internet [laughs]. And because I think for my daughters, you go to school and you get these books about these famous people. Hank Aaron or Rosa Parks, and the way you read about them is like, well, they were just, they’re not like me. I could never be them because they’re so larger than life. That’s dangerous because that’s not a good lesson, to tell a story about someone you could never be. I want my daughters to feel like they could be Malala. Malala was an ordinary girl, but she made an extraordinary choice. And she gave her life purpose by choosing to live that extraordinary life. And if you look at it that way, anyone can do it. And why are more of us not doing that?

And is that, too, the reaction you want people to have from seeing the film? What’s your biggest hope on how people will feel after watching the doc?

Well, I want them to feel like they know this father and this daughter, that they know this story. I want them to feel these simple truths, that everyone has a voice and that everyone has something to say and that speaking out is a duty. As [her father] Zia says, “I should rather die than not speak out.” Those are fundamental ideas that we forget, and so to be inspired by this father and this daughter, this man and this girl from a town 7,000 miles away, that’s pretty good.

There was also that moment where you told Malala, “You don’t like to talk about your suffering.” I liked when you asked her this, so did you feel she was withholding from you?

Absolutely [laughs]. I said, “You’re avoiding my questions.” And she said, “Of course I am.” First of all, everyone you ever make a movie about withholds something. Even my wife withholds things. We all have secrets and that’s not a horrible thing. But it is interesting why they don’t complain, and I don’t know why, but I think maybe it has to do with the fact that they feel like there are many other people who are suffering. There are 3 million Syrian kids who are out of school, and there are refugees like the way they are. I think they don’t feel like they want to ever complain. I’ve never heard them complain. I’ve never felt an ounce of bitterness from them. Any of them. She’ll complain about her brothers [laughs]. But it’s interesting, isn’t it? They have so much more reason to complain and they don’t. I mean, I live in Venice, and if someone serves you a coffee and it isn’t quite hot enough, you’re like, “What is this?! This is awful! Have a terrible day!” I think it’s interesting, you talk about soldiers who have seen the worst combat, they’re the most stoic. They brag the least and they’re the most stoic. I think there’s a parallel there.

Why does that happen, do you think?

I do think, she says, “I’ve been given a new life and this life is a sacred life.” You could recover from being shot and be angry your whole life. Also become selfish. No one would blame her. But I think she’s chosen the opposite. It’s almost like a burden’s been lifted and to cherish every day and to only live in the world with a sense of purpose. There’s something very enlightened about her. You see people who are very sick and they become very enlightened. They remember what’s important. I can only speculate, but I don’t think she takes her life for granted.

It’s interesting, too, because you bring up the point and show the people in Pakistan who don’t support her and think she is famous for no reason. What do you make of that?

I think in Pakistan, she’s misunderstood by some people. I think there’s a lot of misinformation. It’s a cruel joke because there’s nothing more they want to do than go back. But they can’t go back. If they go back, they’ll be killed. Yet people there are resentful if they don’t go back. And so that spins on itself. Oh, they’re living in the West and they’re very happy, living this fancy life. And all they want to do is go back and live in their home. So it’s sort of a cruel joke, and it’s really not fair.

How much time did you spend with them?

I didn’t count, but a lot. Countless trips to Birmingham. Kenya, Jordan, Nigeria, Boston, New York, L.A., Santa Barbara, San Francisco, a lot. Countless interviews. So, a lot. More than they wanted [laughs]. “Why do you have to come back? Why aren’t we done?”

Was there any moment you didn’t capture on camera that you wish you had?

There’s always something. You always feel like you want your movie to be more and to go further. But no, I felt very lucky to be telling their story. They are such lovely people and their story is so moving. But I also felt that they were very open, I felt they were very open and honest, which was very refreshing. You make movies with people in the West and it’s different. They wanted to tell their story. They don’t mind looking uncomfortable or frail or petty. Malala calls her brother “the lazy one.” The little one says he hits her. The older one says, “I’m the mom’s favorite.” And she shows her bad exams. It’s very refreshing to see people who are so honest and candid and just themselves.

Yes, Malala showing her bad grades was great.

[Laughs] She’s a person.

What do you think of her relationship with her mom?

Her mom, people read a lot into it because she’s not in the movie as much. And part of that is that her traditional culture is to be off camera—being on camera is immodest. Something like forbidden, but then you read into it that there’s some mystery going on. She’s the one who decides everything in that house. And Malala gets her power from her mom. She gets her sense of mission from her dad. She gets her moral power, her spiritual power, from her mom. And so the first half of the shooting, filming — I like to say filming instead of shooting — her mom was very much in the background. Then in the end, she started to say, “I want to be interviewed.” It was nice towards the end. And she’s very proud of her daughter. Never second-guesses anything. Wants her daughter to be up there, equal, spreading the word.

The Producers:

When you had this opportunity to make a story about Malala, what made you decide to go the documentary route with her story as opposed to a biopic?

Walter Parkes: When we went to meet her, we went with the intention of making a feature film about her, initially. We had read the 12-page proposal for her book, and saw all sorts of big themes that we generally associate with big feature movies. But when we met the family, Zia and Malala, it soon became clear to us that it was not the right way to tell the story. If you make a theatrical feature, no matter what, you are forced to condense and fictionalize and make all sorts of exceptions that we honestly didn’t feel comfortable about.

Laurie MacDonald: We also found it very interesting what the story would be going forward as she was suddenly now a refugee. They were thrown out of their country, and what was going to happen to Malala over the next two years was very, potentially, interesting.

Did you expect so many big things to happen over the course of filming?

Parkes: The first thing we filmed was her address to the UN on her 16th birthday. So, we started with a bang. And then she’s nominated for the Nobel Prize. Then she doesn’t win it [laughs], which was fine. And, quite honestly, we had finished the movie. And after the movie was more or less locked, she won the prize. So that’s why we sort of deal with that as a coda at the end because we had already told her story. So we in no way anticipated that. We anticipated it so little that we planned our movie having nothing to do with it.

What were your first impressions of her?

MacDonald: Well, she was still recovering. She was back in school, but she was still doing physical therapy. I’d say we didn’t get the full on Malala, but she was amazing. Her presence is so strong and her poise, given her age and given the circumstance of all this, is incredible. She’s formidable. Even when you say hello to her, you feel like this is not your average 18-year-old. And we got a little sense of the family in that first brief meeting.

Parkes: She looks at you very intensely.

MacDonald: Not in a judgmental way, but I think she’s very observant. And even in that first meeting, there’s just an honesty, something very straightforward about her. She looks you in the eye and tells you exactly what she thinks. And she has this beautiful relationship with her father, which obviously comes out in the film, but in many ways, they’re very different.

Parkes: In some ways, she’s more like her mother.

MacDonald: Yeah, she’s more reserved initially, and there’s more mystery there in a way.

Parkes: But in terms of first impressions, the first real Malala impression came on a second meeting. We were there talking about Davis Guggenheim, explaining why he’d be a good director. Someone in the room made the suggestion that they’d like to hear some of her speech — this was just two months before the UN. So she runs upstairs and comes downstairs with two pieces of printer paper. Just like I remember our daughter having a draft of a paper in college or something like that. She sits down, and I hear directly from her computer to a piece of printed paper to her voice in her living room, “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” So we’re saying, “Okay [laughs], she’s also a brilliant writer on top of everything else.” It was so extraordinary to hear that and understand very clearly that she is responsible for her place in the world. That’s the best way we can put it. She has taken responsibility for her place in this world at a very young age.

When you were deciding who would direct the film, was it obvious from the start that it should be Davis?

MacDonald: Yeah, first choice, I would say maybe only.

Parkes: Well, think about all the people who make big documentaries. Errol Morris? That would have been a very intellectual movie, I mean, I love him.

MacDonald: Love him, love Herzog, but also, with Malala, they would have never — we needed someone that the family felt very comfortable having a very intimate relationship with.

Parkes: You really think about it, Davis is the right guy. And then on top of that, when you actually look at his work, by far he’s made the largest number of his films on the topic of education.

MacDonald: Even his very first film was about teacher’s first years. He’s very passionate about teachers, so it seemed that we were lucky he said yes very quickly.

Parkes: Another thing about Davis, he sort of mounts his documentaries in a bigger way. In this case with animation. They’re very polished in a way. It struck us that this was a good thing for this. This was never intended to be an information-based documentary. The details of her story, the external story, are available in a lot of different places. This was really going to be an emotional documentary and focus on intimacy. And he’s uniquely qualified to do that, and yet you want it to have a certain type of size on top of it. [MacDonald] mentioned in another interview, and I agree, I don’t know who the second choice would have been [laughs].

MacDonald: Also to finance a documentary, too, feature-length documentaries are tricky to finance. And Davis, because of his experience and the success he’s had, but it was really about who he was. Having met him and seen the work, feeling that he was perfect for it. And thankfully he agreed. He loved the material immediately.

And once you had him to direct, was financing easier?

MacDonald: Well, Davis went to meet with them, the family fell in love, and then we expected we would cobble together financing from many different sources, initially.

Parkes: But we’re financed by a company called Image Nation Abu Dhabi, and, honestly, I think the fact that our financiers are based in a moderate Islamic country was helpful in terms of Malala’s family trusting us. They sensed that somewhere in all of this were people they had kind of a cultural religious connection. So that was good. Once we decided that we wanted to do this and it was a documentary, I called one of our partners in Abu Dhabi, a man called Mohamed Al Mubarak, and started explaining to him why we thought this was a good movie to make. He literally stopped me mid-conversation and said, “You don’t have to say anything else, Walter. She’s everything our country stands for.” Our partners in Abu Dhabi are the most anti-terrorist people on Earth, and they feel almost this obligation to try and support positive and non-demonized images of Islam.

(He Named Me Malala opens in select theaters on October 2 and nationwide on October 9.)