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.
Some documentarians, like “Chicago 10” and “Montage of Heck” filmmaker Brett Morgen, are very vocal about not just making a film purely driven by complex issues. If you took a book and made a script out of it, you’d maybe have 50 pages as opposed to hundreds.
It might be even 20. Films are reductive. But they’re also experiential. There’s something about being at that kitchen table when Malala’s teasing her brothers, or at the Syrian border when she’s watching these refugees come across. There’s something very visceral in the movie. I love when movies have some social context, but I try not to worry about the message in the movie very much.
Even in “An Inconvenient Truth,” the way that Al Gore comes across as charming can be disarming. It’s so unlike his previous public self that that shock can help us accept his message a lot easier.
A lot of people would say, “Where was that guy?” The challenge of that movie was to get to know him intimately. In a lot of respects, the movie is a redemption story. It’s the story of a politician who was really trying to dust himself off and get back on the horse. He had this mission that he’s trying to tell the world and the world wouldn’t’ listen. If you look at it through that lens, the audience has a way in. They identify with this guy. They may not necessarily agree with him, but they identify with him. And then the other stuff comes along with it.
“Malala” makes use of multimedia media types. For instance there are animated stretches.
When I make a film everything is on the table. The process with this was to get them to tell their story. If they told a story about something that happened a hundred years ago, I have to find a way to tell that. The Battle of Maiwand, where Malala gets her name, I have to find a way to tell that. I’m not going to do a re-enactment with guys in helmets. I wanted to animate it in a way that it’s almost a dream in the way a young girl would dream it.
It also goes out of its way to humanize her — to show her as just a regular girl who just happens to be speaking at lecterns and discussing drones with Obama.
For my daughter to see this movie and see a girl who’s worried about her physics test, or going online and looking up boys she has a crush, for them that’s very moving. They see a girl just like them, rather than some iconic, untouchable person they could never be. I’d like for my daughters to feel they could be like her.
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