Malala Yousafzai and director Davis Guggenheim on He Named me Malala
When the Taliban shot 15-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in the head they thought it would silence her. They were wrong. Since the attempt on her life the world knows the name Malala, and the story of the girl from Swat Valley who dared to speak against the Taliban became the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Her story has now been turned into a documentary by American director Davis Guggenheim, who directed climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth.
When we meet Guggenheim and Malala (who is joined by her father Ziauddin Yousafzai) at the preview screening of the documentary at Emirates Palace, there’s clearly a mutual respect and genuine friendship between the family and the filmmaker.
When asked about the process of sharing the story, Malala speaks first. “We spent a lot of time together, he took the time to understand and respect our family and we enjoyed making the movie. I am hopeful that the relationship we have will continue.”
Guggenheim smiles as she speaks, then says. “Making this movie was one of the greatest privileges of my life. Only now do I realise as a man from Los Angeles just how ignorant I was about Muslim culture. Now I have spent time with this beautiful family and they’ve taught me more and more about forgiveness and tolerance, and Ziauddin taught me what it means to be a good father. He challenged my ideas about how I raise my children. And Malala has taught me what it means to speak out for what you believe. Her brothers taught me a thing or two, too – but I can’t share what those things are!”
The three of them exchange glances and laugh, then Malala’s father, a former teacher and activist himself, describes their initial feelings when Davis met them.
“First when they came to Birmingham, we did not know Davis, and who we were letting into our home. He is from LA, we’re Pakistani, and Muslims. Davis is an amazing person and he came at the beginning with only his audio recorder and we told him our story. I tell people now, ‘If you have a story to tell, tell it to Davis.’”
The documentary took two years to make, and shows them settling into their new life in the UK, meeting refugees at the Syrian border and speaking to the families of the missing school girls in Nigeria. Cleverly combining animation with news footage and interviews, it gives viewers an insight into their life, and the events leading up to Malala winning the Nobel Peace Prize – news we see her receive when she’s in her green English school uniform. “Basically,” Guggenheim says, “this is a story about a girl and her father.”
In the flesh Malala is a calm and humble figure, wearing a bright red headscarf and a simple orange blouse and trousers. Despite being one of the world’s most influential people, she is, as much as she tries to be at least, just a regular teenager.
And while most have been full of praise for the moving documentary, Malala herself does have a little constructive criticism for her director friend that she would like to take this opportunity to share with us.
“I really loved the animations and the way that Davis thoughtfully told the story of our family, but there were a few things that I did not like,” Malala laughs. “There was too much support for my brothers [in the film]! He allowed them to say everything they could about me.” She shakes her head with mock solemnity. “And they haven’t listened to me since!” He Named Me Malala is out in cinemas across the UAE on November 5.