Oscar-winning director Davis Guggenheim talks about making 'He Named Me Malala'
Academy Award-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim was initially hesitant about tackling Malala Yousafzai's famous story for his latest documentary. Upon further investigation of his latest subject, though, the father of three recognized emotional elements to her and her father's journey that he couldn't ignore.
With "He Named Me Malala," Guggenheim -- who previously directed such lauded films as "An Inconvenient Truth" and "Waiting for 'Superman'" -- wanted to show that in addition to being an incredible, rare young leader, Yousafzai is also a relatable, normal teenage girl. That message was especially important when he considered his two daughters.
"He Named Me Malala" already had its run in theaters, but new audiences will get a chance to see the extraordinarily powerful film on Monday night when it makes it television premiere on the National Geographic Channel at 8 p.m. EST.
We talked to Guggenheim about his experience filming "He Named Me Malala" and what he learned about Malala (and himself) during the process.
Check out our full conversation with Davis Guggenheim below:
You've covered a lot of huge topics in your past films, and "He Named Me Malala" was no different in that regard. What got you initially interested in telling Malala's story?
Originally I was like, "Is that a world I want to think about?" And I didn't really want to travel. I was being selfish. When I read more about their story, though, I realized there was this sort of inspirational father-daughter theme to it, and I have two daughters, so I really wanted to learn what it was that this man in Pakistan did to make his daughter feel so powerful, because I struggle with that myself: How to help my daughters navigate this complicated world.
Was it difficult to get them to sign on to do the film?
It's interesting because everyone and their mother asks them to make a documentary, and I was the only one that they chose. So they were very picky about it. But then, once I started filming, they really let me in. I've never had any subject of any documentary let me in as much as they did. They opened their home to me, and they really opened their hearts. It was very powerful.
As a viewer, that came across very clearly: Some of the film's most memorable moments were when we saw Malala and her family in their home. Was it important for you to show that side of her?
Yeah, because I think a lot of people who know their story think, "She's so incredible, but I could never be her." And having a teenage daughter, I didn't want them to feel like they could never be Malala. I want my daughters to feel like they could be Malala. And if you're going to do that, you have to show that she's also just a teenage girl with the same hopes, desires, dreams and foibles that any girl has.
What were the main questions you were trying to answer with this film?
I always want my movies to be very personal. So, beyond all of the obvious things that the movie addresses -- like why did she stand up to the Taliban, what it's like to be Muslim -- all of these big things. In the end, it was, "How do I get to know this girl and help the audience get to know her and her family the way that I know them?"
In a way, it demystifies them. To many people, the culture of Pakistan is very mysterious. Many people in the West don't understand it to the point that it can be kind of dangerous. We tend to think about cultures that we don't understand in a one-dimensional way. I really did imagine a teenage girl from, you know, L.A. or Japan or Germany, watching this movie and thinking, "I understand her. I'm inspired by her, even beyond the political stuff."
Malala is such an important figure in our world and is, as you said, a source of inspiration for so many people. Did you feel any pressure in the telling of her story?
I felt an internal, personal pressure to get her story right. The minute I met her, I felt like she was so extraordinary and rare -- someone who's strong and articulate and almost died and has something really important and spiritual to tell us. If I screwed up, I would've screwed up forever. There was pressure on me to get it right.
Sometimes you meet someone and you're taken by them -- in a good or bad way -- but it doesn't necessarily come across in your work. You have to find a way to have people see and feel what you see and feel as a director.
Definitely. Something that really helped me understand the message and feeling of the film were the animated illustrations that you interspersed throughout.
The choice to do animation was a big breakthrough for me. A lot of that decision had to do with the ways in which Pakistan and the greater Muslim world has been portrayed in the media. In news coverage, it's grainy pictures of men with beards. But the way that Malala and her father were describing their lives produced a sense of paradise, but also of paradise lost. They had this paradise and then they didn't. If we had missed that part, then we would've missed a huge dimension of the story.
See more photos of Malala Yousafzai:
What did you learn from Malala during the process?
She's 18 now, but I met her when she was 15 -- and I was 50. A lot of times I felt like the immature person in the room. Not because she's like Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King -- though, in some ways she does have those same qualities -- but because she has such poise, presence and inner strength. She's not afraid to speak her mind or to speak the truth.
Something that Islam teaches her is that it's important to tell the truth and be honest. Sometimes in Western culture you can hide the truth to be polite, but she is always very direct and truthful. That's very important to her, and I like that about her.
Did anything surprise you about the filmmaking process this time around?
I'm a Jewish guy form Los Angeles spending time with a Pakistani family, so there are a lot of cultural differences. At one point, her father grabbed my hair to ask if it was real. He had never seen hair like mine. But I had also never eaten at a table using my hands. There were so many cultural differences that took a little while to become comfortable. What I would say is that they were much more free to understand and be accepting of my culture than I was of theirs. I thought it would be the opposite, but they were much more worldly and tolerant than I was.
It's almost cliché to say it, but we forget all the time that telling stories connects us to other people. It opens your minds to another culture. When we're not exposed to people's stories, our minds close, and we become more fearful of other cultures. That's perhaps the most important reason to watch this movie: It opens you up to another beautiful culture.
And now you're partnering with the National Geographic Channel to spread the film's message to an even broader audience. How does it feel to know that even more people will see this film?
The reach that National Geographic has is incredible. They're in 190 countries. That's my dream -- for the world to see this movie I made and hear the story we're telling. It's a huge deal.
What did you think about the skepticism about her father's influence on her message?
I had the skepticism myself before I met them. When you read the story, you think, "How much did the father have to do with her success?" It's a natural question that anyone would have. I put that question in people's minds with the title itself. It was very important.
I like to provoke the question and then have the audience try to figure it out when they watch it, because it's such a complex question.
Something that was interesting to me was that Malala's mother didn't seem to be nearly as involved in her life as her father was. How did you go about including the mother in the film?
Every screening and interview I do, people ask about Malala's mother because she's not on camera as much. You feel like her disappearing in the movie and that did sort of happen at the beginning. Over time, though, she became more comfortable.
It simple: She's the most traditional person in the family. For her, being on camera could be taken as being immodest. But she saw the movie, and she's very proud of it.
What's next for you? Any big topics that you have your eye on?
My son says I'm a complainer for a living, because I make movies that complain about everything; I make movies about problems in the world. But I actually disagree with him, though. I make movies about things that inspire me and get me excited or angry. I want to make things that I almost have no choice but to make.
Making "Malala" was one of the most special experience of my life. When you come off a movie that's so special, you have to really take some time to figure out what the next one will be. We'll see.