From the legendary guitarist Jimmy Page through American Vice President-turned-environmental campaigner Al Gore all the way to Barack Obama, American documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim has turned his lens on some of the most fascinating characters of our times.
But while Guggenheim’s made films on rock music, climate change, immigration, U2 and his country’s first black president, no subject or person has been more compelling, he says, than his latest – the Pakistani education campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.
Yousafzai has become a symbol not only for the clash between political, religious and cultural ideologies but the disparities created and perpetuated by those very same man-made ideologies.
Meeting the teenager, Guggenheim tells me, has forced him to re-evaluate his own perspectives, even within the confines of Hollywood – where some of those disparities have come into sharp focus in recent weeks.
“I have two daughters and I worry as a father what will my daughters feel?”, Guggenheim says in his signature southern California drawl.
“I question whether they will feel confident and will they feel equal to my son. Even in Los Angeles where girls are supposed to be equal to boys there are these invisible forces that make girls feel less than that.
“So I searched all the way across the world to this Pakistani man and his daughter to find out what the secret was to raising my daughter”, Guggenheim says.
That secret is at the heart of ‘He Named Me Malala’ – Guggenheim’s fascinating and deeply moving documentary about Malala, the girl who captured the world’s imagination back in 2012 when she was targeted by the Pakistani Taliban for daring to demand an education for herself and girls like her.
The film’s title is a reference to a 19th Century Pashtun heroine after whom Malala is named: Malalai of Maiwand is a national folk hero in Afghanistan.
Known as “The Afghan Joan of Arc” she helped rally local tribesmen in southeastern Afghanistan against the British Army in 1880, only to be later killed for being “outspoken”.
For ‘He Named Me Malala’ Guggenheim spent nearly two years with Malala, capturing the extraordinary and extraordinarily ordinary life of a young girl as she does her homework at her new home in Birmingham (where she was flown for specialist treatment and where she has since settled), teases her brothers, blushes as she looks at pictures of Roger Federer and travels with her devoted father Ziauddin around the world, either to deliver inspirational speeches or oversee the numerous charitable projects that she has undertaken in places such as Lebanon and Nigeria.
All while struggling with the rigours of being an 18-year-old, thousands of miles away from her childhood home in the Swat Valley of Pakistan.
That very ordinary nature of Malala’s life away from the cameras and the podiums and the red carpets is all the more remarkable given what she has had to go through and process at an age when the most pressing concern for a vast majority of girls is nothing more challenging than choosing the best possible pose for a selfie.
And then to have the almost esoteric courage, poise and dignity to overcome the horrors that have been committed against her.
“After we showed the movie for the first time to the public in Colorado, Malala’s father Zia said that making the film was a kind of therapy – not just for Malala but for the entire family”, Guggenheim says.
“But I also feel like they never want to complain because they have this acute awareness that there are millions of people who went through and go through exactly what they went through.
“The refugees you see in the newspapers and TV every day are going through what they went through. Malala and her parents were forced out of their homes. They were refugees themselves first, years before the world had ever heard of Malala Yousafzai. They’ve seen their home taken away from them. They’ve seen their school taken away from them. So the idea of complaining, the idea of being bitter about what happened has never been in question.”
And yet Malala is, essentially, a wistful young girl who just wants to do what young girls do – to learn, play, to love and be loved.
For all her poise, those incredibly confident speeches at the UN, the even more confident talk-show appearances, the most moving moment for me in the time that the world and I have known and loved Malala came a day after she shared the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize with Indian children’s rights campaigner Kailash Satyarthi.
The duo were being shown around a Nobel Peace exhibition in Oslo, Norway when they came across the blood-splattered school uniform Malala was wearing the day she was attacked by the Taliban.
At the sight of the exhibit, Malala broke down crying, prompting Satyarthi to give her a consoling hug. It was a powerful yet tender image and spoke volumes of what Malala has endured and doubtless continues to endure, away from prying eyes.
Kailash Satyarthi consoles Malala in Oslo.
“I think Malala feels like she escaped death and she understands how fortunate she is to be on this planet”, Guggenheim says.
“I also think she has a certain kind of poise that she gets from her faith. You can see politicians say ‘I’m not angry’. But you can immediately tell on a human level that they are angry. Malala says she’s not bitter and that she forgives these people and I truly believe that. I think there’s a tremendous amount of peace in her actually.”
‘He Named Me Malala’ is as much a portrait of Malala Yousafzai as it is of Ziauddin Yousafzai – a man who, by giving her daughter the name he did, foresaw the icon she would become.
Ziauddin is clearly an utterly devoted father and Malala adores him. He is also a very contemplative man with a great deal of wisdom.
And yet, much as with Malala, he has his detractors – with a common theme among the naysayers being that he is fulfilling his unfulfilled ambition through his daughter.
“People ask me all the time – ‘Is he behind the scenes? Did he create her?’ In fact, that’s one of the reasons that I named the movie the way I did. Her father does have a huge influence on Malala, there’s no question. He names her after a girl who speaks out against the British.
“She first saw him as an activist and I think wanted to be like him. But when you meet her and Zia together you realize how much she is her own person. But interestingly, she gets her power and determination from her mother.
“Malala’s father is this dreamy, idealistic activist but her mother is this very strong willed, very strong woman of faith and that’s where Malala gets her resolve. And I’ve seen her grow up. I saw her when she was 16 and now she’s 18 and you see that this girl has a will of her own. No one can tell her what to do. Not me, not her father or mother. She is her own person.”
And what does Guggenheim make of Malala’s own detractors? The men and women – mostly in Pakistan – who abhor the international attention granted to a girl who has gone through what innumerable others have but has had the good fortune to come out of it better than most.
“Well there are people in America who still think that Barack Obama is a Muslim. There’s always going to be a small portion of the population that’s crazy. I was at the Toronto International Film Festival and I got in a cab and the cab driver was Pakistani. The guy asked me if I had a movie at the Festival and I told him I had and that it was ‘He Named Me Malala’ and his first reaction was – ‘oh she’s an agent for the CIA’.
“I said “Oh Really?” Tell me about it and he told me the whole story about why she’s an agent for the CIA and I said well let me tell you what I’ve experienced and I told him about filming with the family for 18 months and how I was with the family at the Jordanian border with Syrian refugees and so forth. By the time he dropped me off at the hotel he was like ‘okay because I’ve talked to you I believe she’s the real deal and you’re not paying for this cab ride’. I think that was interesting because when people get to know her and see her story they are going to see she’s the real deal.
“I think it’s a bit unfair to criticize her. There are people who say that she should return home to Pakistan but there’s an open death threat against her! What do people expect her to do? She’s the real deal”.
‘He Named Me Malala’ is in UK cinemas 6 November.