Q&A: An extraordinary Malala

The director of An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman spent 18 months with Malala Yousafzai and her family.  His resulting new film tells the story of one ordinary girl who faced extraordinary choices.

By: /
October 16, 2015
Nobel Peace Prize 2014 Laureate Malala Yousafzai and her father Ziauddin Yousafzai (L) arrive for meeting with U.S. House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (not pictured). REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Davis Guggenheim didn’t know what to expect when he knocked on the Birmingham, England home of Malala Yousafzai three years ago. The Oscar-winning director had no film crew with him – only an audio recorder – and for the next several hours he sat down with the Nobel Peace Prize winner and her family, and just talked. Several hours turned into a year and a half, over which Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth; Waiting for Superman) pieced together his beautifully crafted documentary, He Named Me Malala, which was released in theatres October 9. 

Keen observers will notice the change in title from the Pakistani-born teenager’s autobiography, I Am Malala. The documentary’s title is a nod to Malala’s father, Ziauddin, who had more foresight than most parents when bestowing his daughter with her name.

He Named Me Malala opens with a sequence of hand-drawn, animated illustrations – lyrical and almost ethereal – depicting a historical clash between British and Afghan forces, during the Battle of Maiwand in 1880. At the centre of the fighting is one of the greatest heroines of the Pashtun people: Malalai of Maiwand, a teenage girl, often compared to Joan of Arc. To boost the morale of the Afghan army, Malalai shouts words of encouragement to the soldiers, only to be struck and killed by bullets.

More than 100 years later, Ziauddin Yousafzai gave his daughter Malalai’s name, hoping to instill in her courage and an understanding that being a woman should be no barrier to greatness. His daughter’s fate would align uncannily with Malalai of Maiwand’s, with one important variation. Malala Yousafzai spoke out against the Taliban in her native Swat Valley, and was shot for her determination and beliefs – but instead of having her spirit snuffed out, Malala has become a global icon and tireless advocate for free, safe and quality education around the world.

Guggenheim’s film tells Malala’s story, but also the story of the Yousafzai family. We see how crucial a role the teenager’s parents played in enabling her to raise her voice in defence of girls’ rights, and how despite the attention of the world’s media, Malala remains extraordinarily normal – preoccupied with university applications, bickering with her siblings, and blushing over crushes on professional athletes.

During the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Davis Guggenheim sat down with a group of journalists to answer questions about the making of He Named Me Malala.

What’s it like to be essentially embedded with a family for 18 months for the purpose of creating a documentary?
Next to having children, and raising my own kids, it [was] by far the best experience of my entire life. The process of making a documentary is a process of gaining mutual trust – them trusting me and me trusting them. And my approach is just to say, let’s tell your story together. Sometimes the relationship is oppositional – I’m going to film as much as I can and you’re going to hide as much as you can – a cat and mouse game, which I don’t like to do. I feel like, as a documentarian, I’m a midwife, I’m helping them tell their story, and I find that very inspiring.

What were the challenges when figuring out how to tell this story?
One is that this story structure is very complex. I knew at the heart of the story it was about a choice to speak out. I would come home from seeing them saying, what would I have done, if [the Taliban] were coming and attacking the school that I loved, or they were killing my friends…Would I run away, would I protect my family, or would I make the choice that they made, which was to speak out?

And so I felt like the story should build towards that choice, where Malala walks 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 so that becomes very challenging…you’ll see the movie kind of see-saws between these two different realities.

For a good year, it just didn’t work. We’d have screenings and people would be scratching their heads… so that was the hardest part. And also the feeling that I needed to get it right. That they are such special people, that there’s one shot at doing this.

At what point did you realize that getting to the heart of the story was to strip away all the layers to focus on Malala as just a girl who likes Candy Crush and Roger Federer?
I think it’s dangerous to look at these people as superheroes. Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, they’re too brilliant, like someone sprinkled them with some magic dust and they are superhuman. Malala was an ordinary girl, she became more extraordinary by making [the choice to speak out], so if you see it that way you see that all of us can be extraordinary by the choices we make. To me, that’s a very powerful message. And she is an ordinary girl – she still is. Still fights with her brothers.

The illustrated sequences in the film are quite striking – how do they fit in with our more traditional association of documentaries with reality, instead of animation? 
I think what’s exciting about how documentaries have changed is that for a long time they were seen as just journalism, which in many cases they are, they should be. And certainly documentaries need to be truthful and accurate and all that. But I think there have been some great innovators who’ve changed the form, like Michael Moore, who has a film here [at TIFF], Errol Morris, among many – now suddenly documentaries can be great stories. Sometimes animating a sequence is more effective in getting a real story across than other ways.

How was animation a helpful tool for certain parts of He Named Me Malala?
You think about how we get our news about this part of the world. We get our news from Syria, about terrible atrocities, or in Europe, all these immigrants are coming across – its images that come from this part of the world which are confusing and scary and as a viewer, you turn the page. I still do that…and the truth is that the narrative from that part of the world is not that. That’s a negative, narrow sliver that unfortunately journalists in the West perpetrate. If it bleeds, it leads. Malala’s story is very different from that. And I needed to find a different language to tell her story.

Also – Malala was named after a girl who spoke out, and was killed for speaking out, and then she spoke out and was almost killed. That’s amazing! You couldn’t have written that. But then – how do you tell that story? I mean, I didn’t have cameras at the Battle of Maiwand…so what if we animated it? And the other idea was, instead of telling it from my point of view, tell it from her point of view. How would a girl from Pakistan imagine that battle? And so that’s why these sort of very impressionistic hand-drawn, almost lyrical animations came to be. 

Malala has said she wants to use this film as a tool to spread the message about the importance of education for girls… 
You know there are 66 millions girls who are out of school? 66 million girls who have similar stories to Malala. To her, that’s her mission, that’s her reason to be on this earth.

You accompanied Malala all around the world – how did people react to her?
I was with her when she spoke at the UN and when she won her Nobel Peace Prize, I was with her when she spoke at Harvard, I was with her at the Syrian border when refugees would spend all night going across the border. You know in Jordan, they don’t know who she is. She’s just a girl with a shawl. So in some cases she’s like this super star and other cases she’s just an ordinary girl. And she’s much more comfortable there. On her 18th birthday she wanted to go to Jordan and visit her friend who she met when we were there. I think the fame is not that interesting to her…if anything it’s work she has to do.

There’s a moment when you ask Malala about her suffering, why she never talks about it – that seems to be the only time she’s not open.
That’s a big moment in the movie. I wouldn’t say she wasn’t open – I think she herself didn’t know how to answer that question. It might be a cultural thing, you just don’t talk about your suffering, but also generally I think she feels like there are millions of girls who are suffering right now – how dare she complain. People in L.A.…you’ll be like oh, how was your day, and they’ll be like “It was terrible, the worst, the aioli on my sub was too spicy.” She feels real gratitude, the kind that I don’t really understand.

She talks about how she has no anger and seems so genuine.
She lives without bitterness. And at the screening [at TIFF], I heard Zia say this, it really struck me, after the shooting they really found each other as a family, they really bonded, and stuck together, and that’s beautiful.

The Yousafzai family has been transplanted from their native Swat Valley – would they like to return one day?
They’re desperate to go home. They want to go home right now. And everyone is telling them that they shouldn’t, that it’s too dangerous. But it’s their motherland. They’re not complainers, they’re not bitter, but they really want to go home.

What is one thing that surprised you the most about Malala?
I’m half-Jewish, half-Episcopalian…I’ve met a few Muslims in my life but I’ve never really gotten to know a family. Their kitchen table is like my kitchen table. It’s a little rowdy, there’s a lot of laughter, a lot of teasing – a family that was from a town 7,000 miles away from my home is almost exactly like my kitchen table. That’s pretty cool.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.