Q&A: Documentary director talks “He Named Me Malala”

Director Davis Guggenheim speaks about the dangers Malala and her family faced, artistic choices, and how he hopes others will relate to this story.

“He Named Me Malala” follows the every day life of a young Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai, and her family in the aftermath of the Talibans’ attack on her. Now the author of a best-selling book, “I Am Malala,” Malala uses her near death experience as a way to inform and inspire the world to change for the better. 

Guggenheim took place in a college conference call with college journalists all over the country, here are some of the questions he was asked:

Q: Malala’s father was actually the one who suggested that she do the anonymous blog about her life under the Taliban law. Wasn’t he worried about the safety of his daughter when putting her through this?

Guggenheim: I think that’s one of the big questions of the movie and the story is, and a lot of people ask it.  Was her father, Ziauddin, reckless by one, encouraging her to do the blog which that was anonymous, but then of course letting her speak out?  She eventually spoke out on camera and called out the names of the men in the Taliban which no one at that point had done.

If you ask Malala and her father, and I do in the movie, I think they feel very certain that they did the right thing.  For them, they would rather die than not speak out.  It’s a part of their faith, that speaking out against tyranny is something that’s their duty to do.  Malala takes her own—she takes responsibility for her own actions.  She said he did not push me.  I chose to do this.  I chose to speak out. 

I think that is what is so meaningful to me is there are not enough people in our world, in my world anyway, when they see something that’s unjust most of us, including me, tend to take the safer route.

Q: What effect do you think the story will have on others, especially on women and young girls?  Do you think girls all over the world can relate to her story?

Guggenheim: When I made this movie, I made the movie imagining my own two daughters watching it.  I’m a father.  I have two daughters.  I imagined a girl in the valley in Los Angeles.  I imagined a Japanese girl in Tokyo.  I imagined a girl, a Pashtun girl in the Swat Valley watching it.  To me I wanted the story to speak to girls.  I wanted girls to feel like this was their story.

That sounds odd, because of course I’m a 51-year-old man who’s not them.  So what I did was I did these extensive interviews with Malala and her father, mostly Malala, and tried to make the movie—my process was to help her tell her own story so that it felt like it was told from the voice of a girl and from her perspective.  So my dream is that girls feel like it’s their movie and they own it.  This weekend or next weekend they tell their parents, I want to go see this movie or they tell their friends or their boyfriend or their family, I want to go see this.

Q: In the film you chose several different techniques to advance Malala’s story, including an extensive end captivating use of animation.  What made you decide to approach the narrative in this manner?

Guggenheim: Very early on Malala and her father were talking about this time in Pakistan when the Swat Valley where they lived was a paradise and they were talking about it with such love and romantic imagery that I didn’t think even a camera now or a camera then could capture it.  The way they were talking about their life had a storybook feel.  Again, the idea is how do I tell the story from the point of view of a girl and the way she was describing it had this, sort of, storybook.  Almost like she was closing her eyes at night and remembering it.  So the idea of animation was to sort of capture that feeling and to really make it feel like she was telling it to us.  

Q: What were the safety precautions that you and the crew and Malala and her family had to take because she still probably had to be careful about the threats from the Taliban and then even the media alone.  What did you guys do?  How did you guys go about all of that? 

Guggenheim: For a long time they didn’t have any security at all.  Now they take ordinary precautions and there are places where they just can’t go.  They can’t go back to Pakistan right now.  It’s funny, they don’t live in fear, Malala and her family.  They’re very focused on their work and that’s the thing that makes me happy.  She’s very focused on her mission and feels lucky to be alive and doesn’t live in any kind of bitterness which is very inspiring to me.

Q: So a large portion of the film focuses on Malala’s everyday life with her friends and family.  I was wondering if one of your objectives of the movie was to give Malala a chance to just be a normal teenage girl rather than this international speaker and advocate?

Guggenheim: I mean, first of all, my experience was walking into their home that this is a really fun, joyful place and I didn’t realize that their family was just like my family.  Even though they’re a Muslim family from 7,000 miles away from my home, they were arm-wrestling and teasing each other.  Malala was like any other girl opening up her laptop and looking at pictures of Brad Pitt.  

It was really important to me to show that side of her.  That she’s just a normal girl.  It’s too easy for us to make our heroes untouchable and put them on a pedestal; well I could never be like her.  Truth is she is just an ordinary girl who became famous because she was brave and she made an extraordinary choice in her life to speak out.

“He Named Me Malala” is in theaters this Friday and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements involving disturbing images and threats.