Davis Guggenheim is no stranger to hot-button issue docs. He made his name helping Al Gore stump for global warming awareness with “An Inconvenient Truth.” He tackled education with “Waiting for ‘Superman.’” His latest, “He Named Me Malala,” profiles teen Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the face in 2012 by Taliban members but survived, more fiery than ever. But Guggenheim insists his films aren’t dominated by messages. Instead they portray people first, politics second, in this case focusing on Malala’s relationship with her father, Ziauddin, who named her after noted freedom fighter Malala of Maiwand and first encouraged her to speak out for human rights.
The shooting only occurred three years ago and Malala’s story is very much still going. What was your initial entryway to this when considering how it could function as a film?
When I was asked to do it I said, “Give me a few days to read about it.” I knew she was shot on a schoolbus. But I was looking for an in that was very personal to me. After reading a lot, I had this strong instinct that this was a father-daughter story. People always talk about the global politics, they always talk about the violent aspect of the story. But I have two daughters, and I wanted to solve this mystery between these two people. It was not about her being shot; it was about a girl who feels courageous enough to speak out. One of my daughters is very shy. I wanted to understand that. I talked a lot about what if girls brought their fathers to this movie, rather than the other way around? What if girls felt this was their movie?
How did this relate to your own experiences as a father?
As a parent, with my son as well as with my daughters, you worry if you’re doing too much or too little. Am I leading them by the nose about what they should do with their lives? Or should I leave them completely alone? Neither feels right. What you want is for your child to be courageous and feel their voice matters. For me, just unpacking the nature of this relationship was fascinating to me.
Even making some of the issue-oriented films you do no doubt affects how your children think about those subjects.
My father [Charles Guggenheim] made a lot of documentaries. A lot of them were social justice documentaries. The one thing he taught me was it’s never the issue. He loved doing films that had important, relevant issues, but at the core of every movie were people and personal stories. I know these themes are there, but I actually almost try to neglect them. What I really try to do is tell a personal story. Even “An Inconvenient Truth,” which has a lot of charts and graphs and technical parts, it’s a story of a guy. Same thing with “Waiting for ‘Superman’” — it’s the story of these kids trying to find a good school. I think that’s my job first. If you follow the story through these people the other stuff comes out. If you’re just going to tell a political story, don’t bother. Write a book. Books are better. Books, you can say more, there’s more complexity. Movies are very simple. They have this intimate, personal power to them.