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Davis Guggenheim’s Documentary Reveals Ordinary Side of an Extraordinary Girl

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'He Named Me Malala': Director Davis Guggenheim and Malala Yousafzai in New York City. July 12, 2013 Photo by Bob Richman. © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

Malala Yousafzai became known around the world when, as a 15-year-old Muslim living in Pakistan’s Swat Valley in 2012, she was shot and severely wounded by the Taliban for daring to speak out against them. After a miraculous recovery, Malala was more determined than ever to fight against tyranny and advocate for girls’ education around the world.  

Oscar-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim’s compelling new documentary, He Named Me Malala, delves into the lives of the courageous teenager (now 18) and her close-knit family. During a recent conference call with reporters, Guggenheim fielded questions about the movie and what he hoped to accomplish with it.

The filmmaker said he wanted to let Malala tell her story, rather than him trying to tell it for her. It was also important to him for audiences to see Malala as a normal teenage girl. “It’s too easy for us to make our heroes untouchable and put them on a pedestal and say, ‘Well, I could never be like her,’” he explained. “The truth is, she is just an ordinary girl who became famous because she was brave and made an extraordinary choice in her life to speak out.”

Guggenheim, whose previous documentaries include An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for "Superman," spent 18 months immersed in Malala’s world. He gives viewers an intimate glimpse of the family’s life in Birmingham, England—where they’ve lived ever since Malala was attacked—and travels with her to Nigeria and other countries as she continues her mission to empower girls through education. Guggenheim was also with her in 2014 when she became the youngest person in history to receive a Nobel Peace Prize.

The documentary weaves footage of Malala’s present-day life with animated flashbacks depicting her past. Guggenheim chose the dreamy, storybook-style of animation by Jason Carpenter because he felt it captured the way Malala described her idyllic childhood in the beautiful Swat Valley before the Taliban destroyed it. The animation also allowed Guggenheim to offer a different perspective of a region that’s usually presented to the West in grainy, repetitive media images that portray a scary, negative place. “As a filmmaker, I wanted to show this part of the world, and this narrative, in a way that’s never been shown before,” he said.

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'He Named Me Malala': Malala Yousafzai and Director Davis Guggenheim in Birmingham, England. Dec 17, 2013. Photo by Caroline Furneaux. © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

The film captures Malala in funny, touching moments many teenage girls will relate to—being a bossy older sister to her two brothers, swooning over pictures of Brad Pitt on her laptop and struggling with school work.

“My experience walking into their home was that this is a really fun, joyful place,” Guggenheim said. “They were arm-wrestling and teasing each other. Even though they’re a Muslim family from 7,000 miles away from my home, their family was just like mine. In all the movies I’ve ever made, I’ve never felt so close to a family before.”

Malala is especially close to her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, a teacher who started his own school in Pakistan and fueled his daughter’s passion for learning and standing up for her beliefs. He named her in honor of Malalai of Maiwand, a legendary Afghani Pashtun female warrior who lost her life for speaking out against her enemies.

A defining moment in the movie is when Malala chooses to step in front of a BBC news camera and take on the Taliban—and her father chooses to let her. Malala is adamant the decision was all hers. But Guggenheim expects some viewers will question Ziauddin’s influence on her and whether, as a parent, he was irresponsible to let his daughter risk her life. According to Guggenheim, he picked the title He Named Me Malala for his movie precisely because it provokes such questions.

“Did he create her? Is she just a person of his making? I think when you watch the movie, you have to draw your own conclusions,” he said.

Guggenheim is the father of two teenage daughters himself. When asked what he would do if he were in Ziauddin’s and Malala’s shoes, he replied it was something he’d often pondered while making the film. “There’s something so remarkable about their courage and I want to believe that when push comes to shove, I would die for the things I believe in,” he stated. “But I’m not sure I would, to be honest.”

He Named Me Malala is now playing in theaters.