“He Named Me Malala” film review and Q&A with Director Davis Guggenheim

By Jeff Boudreaux


In “He Named Me Malala,” acclaimed director Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth,” “Waiting for Superman”) brings us the compelling true story of Nobel prizewinner Malala Yousafzai, her rise to activism, her near-fatal gunshot wound to the head, and her role in women’s rights worldwide. The 18-year-old girl has become a symbol of equality and defying the odds for girls around the world.

A resident of Birmingham, England, Malala Yousafzai and her family fled Pakistan after being targeted by the Taliban for questioning the oppressive regime’s denial of education for girls. Her father, schoolteacher Ziauddin Yousafzai, was a vocal opponent of the Taliban and their treatment of Pakistani citizens. Under her own accord, Malala showed true courage in the face of adversity by refusing to keep quiet on an issue which she and her father deemed a fundamental right. In a country where the Taliban was murdering citizens on a daily basis, Malala was shot in the head, but this film proves that it would take more than a bullet to keep this heroic girl down. Because Pakistan was not completely under the Taliban’s control, Malala was able to undergo treatment which saved her life before ultimately moving to England for rehabilitation.

Even though that is Malala’s tragedy in a nutshell, the film is reverse-engineered to keep that information for the climax. For anyone who knows this story, the tragedy inflicted upon Malala was only the beginning of her life’s work. We get to meet a Muslim teenage girl who has “joie de vivre,” and no hatred for her persecutors. Instead, she seized the opportunity to become a champion for women’s rights worldwide. In the 21st century, no person should be denied an education and Malala proves that her handicap (a partial facial paralysis) doesn’t slow her down one bit, traveling the world to fight for the rights of schoolgirls in nations such as Nigeria, Kenya and Syria. However, the one place that Malala wishes she could visit is her home country of Pakistan, which she misses very dearly but acknowledges that the Taliban have promised to end her life if she returns.


One of the things that I loved about this film is how extraordinary Malala is, yet the scenes with her family shows her as a normal, teenage girl who blushes when asked about her interest in online photos of handsome sports stars such as Roger Federer! Yet, Malala knows that her activism and making a difference in the world for human rights is more important to her right now than the prospect of a family of her own. Another interesting aspect is how Guggenheim employs a vast use of delicately drawn animation in order to fill in the gaps of his narrative, including exactly what the title of the film is referring to. As a result, it presents a truly refreshing and childlike outlook upon documentary film, as opposed to your run-of the-mill reenactments.

When the credits finally roll, we realize that Guggenheim is the perfect auteur to embellish this much-needed account upon worldwide audiences. He treats the subject with an unbridled love and respect, and it is truly a fascinating film experience.

*** (three out of four stars)


I also had the chance to take part in a phone interview with Davis Guggenheim, along with other students from across the country, where we asked him some pertinent questions about this film:


Moderator: First question is from Kierra Santillan with IUPUI School.

Q: My question is, after doing some research I saw that Malala’s father was actually the one who suggested that she do the anonymous blog about her life under the Taliban law. Wasn’t he worried about the safety of his daughter when putting her through this?


Davis:  Yes, that’s sort of the—thank you for that question and hello, everybody. I really like doing college interviews because college students always ask the important questions. I encourage everyone to ask the most blunt…the thing they’re most interested in. Don’t be respectful, be disrespectful. And call me Davis.

I think that’s one of the big questions of the movie and the story is…and a lot of people ask it. Was her father, Ziauddin, reckless by one, encouraging her to do the blog which that was anonymous, but then of course letting her speak out? She eventually spoke out on camera and called out the names of the men in the Taliban which no one at that point had done.

If you ask Malala and her father, and I do in the movie, I think they feel very certain that they did the right thing. For them, they would rather die than not speak out. It’s a part of their faith, that speaking out against tyranny is something that’s their duty to do. Malala takes her own…she takes responsibility for her own actions. She said he did not push me. I chose to do this. I chose to speak out.

I think that is what is so meaningful to me is there are not enough people in our world, in my world anyway, when they see something that’s unjust most of us, including me, tend to take the safer route.


Moderator: Question from Bashir Rifai with Concordia University.


Q: Muslims in general have a bad reputation in the western world and the story of Malala shows that they are just by and large normal people who want to pursue a normal life. Was that implicit?


Davis: Yes, I mean it was a very big part of it. I didn’t choose to make a movie that was going to deal with how Muslims are portrayed in the world. I didn’t choose to do that. But as I’ve begun to show the movie everywhere I was in the East Coast, I was in Boston in Providence and Washington D.C., and a lot of college students were there, a lot of Muslims were there. The response from many Muslims has been thank you so much for telling a different part of our story.

What you do see when you see this film is a family that’s very universal. They sit at their kitchen table. They tease each other. They wrestle. It was important to me to show Malala as an ordinary girl because I think too often we hold sort of these “heroes,” put them on the pedestal and then as we hear their story, we feel like, well I could never be that person.


Moderator: I’ve got one from Jasmine Kenper from Arizona State.

Q: My question is what effect do you think the story will have on others, especially on women and young girls? Do you think girls all over the world can relate to her story?


Davis:  Yes, so that’s a great question, Jasmine. Whenever I make my movies I want to visualize who the audience will be. So when I made “Inconvenient Truth” I thought of my cousins who live in Ohio, a swing state. And I wanted the movie to convince them. It wasn’t enough to make a movie that played to people who already agreed with me, I wanted to make a movie that kind of actually did some good in changing minds and make people realize that climate change is real.

When I made this movie, I made the movie imagining my own two daughters watching it. I’m a father. I have two daughters. I imagined a girl in the valley in Los Angeles. I imagined a Japanese girl in Tokyo. I imagined a girl, a Pashtun girl in the Swat Valley watching it. To me I wanted the story to speak to girls. I wanted girls to feel like this was their story.

That sounds odd; because of course I’m a 51-year-old man who’s not them. So what I did was I did these extensive interviews with Malala and her father, mostly Malala, and tried to make the movie—my process was to help her tell her own story so that it felt like it was told from the voice of a girl and from her perspective. So my dream is that girls feel like it’s their movie and they own it. This weekend or next weekend they tell their parents, I want to go see this movie or they tell their friends or their boyfriend or their family, I want to go see this.


Moderator: Question from Jeff Boudreaux with Delgado School.

Q: My question is in the film you chose several different techniques to advance Malala’s story, including an extensive and captivating use of animation. What made you decide to approach the narrative in this manner?


Davis:  Yes, it was sort of, when you’re a filmmaker sometimes your problems become—the places where you get stuck become opportunities to do things you’ve never done before and they become breakthroughs and they make your story something different.

Very early on, Malala and her father were talking about this time in Pakistan when the Swat Valley where they lived was a paradise and they were talking about it with such love and romantic imagery that I didn’t think even a camera now or a camera then could capture it. The way they were talking about their life had a storybook feel. Again, the idea is how do I tell the story from the point of view of a girl and the way she was describing it had this, sort of, storybook. Almost like she was closing her eyes at night and remembering it. So the idea of animation was to sort of capture that feeling and to really make it feel like she was telling it to us.

The other thing is the imagery that we get from this part of the world, the global south, usually has a grainy, scary, repetitive feel and too many of us in the west just get that image or that feeling from that, a very sort of narrow, negative narrative…narrow, negative, narratives.

I didn’t want to do that. I felt like that’s—I wanted to open up this world in a way that hadn’t been opened up. I feel like that’s just my job as a filmmaker is to open up the ideas to explain climate change in a way that hasn’t been explained before, to show this part of the world and this narrative in a way that’s never been shown before.


Moderator: Question from Dorothy O’Donnell with Academy of Art University.

Q: I was wondering as you are a father of daughters yourself, did you think about what you would do if you were in a similar situation as Malala’s father when you were making this movie? And would you support your daughter for speaking out for her beliefs even if you knew there was a really good chance it could cost her her life?


Davis: That is a great question and I used to leave their house wondering what I would do, if guys with guns were coming in and flogging people in my neighborhood or blowing up schools. I would like to believe I would have the courage to do it. I’m not sure I would to be honest with you. There’s something so remarkable about their courage and I want to believe that I could do that. I’m not going to lie and say I would but I want to believe that when push comes to shove I would die for the things I believe in.


Moderator: We have a question from Lykudeniz Bozkurt with Georgia Tech.

Q: I have a question surrounding your artistic choices in shooting the documentary. What about the story influenced your choice to use a nonlinear storyline?


Davis:  Well that’s a great question. Choosing a nonlinear storyline almost killed me. If you were interviewing my wife she would say that I was the most miserable man for about six months because the film just wasn’t working. Chronology is your friend if you’re telling a story because you have a structure. Wednesday comes after Tuesday and 2013 comes after 2012, but I had this instinct that the movie should build towards this past choice that we just talked about.

A lot of great storytellers have said this in the past that characters are defined by the choices they make. Do you step in or do you run away? Do you do the right thing or do you do the cowardly thing? When push comes to shove, it defines who you are and certainly there were many people who when things got rough, sort of shut their door and closed their curtains or left town.

To me that was the defining moment, Malala’s choice to step on camera and speak out against these tyrants and risk her life and her father’s choice to let her. That dictated a nonlinear style because if you’re building towards that at the end, that needs to be at the end and chronologically it wasn’t at the end. All her life after the shooting was there, too. That meant that I had to inner cut between these two different time periods.


Moderator: Question from Angelica Dugek with Wayne State University.

Q: I was curious on the safety precautions that you and the crew and Malala and her family had to take because the family still probably had to be careful about the threats from the Taliban and then even the media alone. What did you guys do? How did you guys go about all of that? Was it easy? Difficult processes?


Davis:  Good question, Angelica. For a long time they didn’t have any security at all. Now they take ordinary precautions and there are places where they just can’t go. They can’t go back to Pakistan right now. It’s funny; they don’t live in fear, Malala and her family. They’re very focused on their work and that’s the thing that makes me happy. She’s very focused on her mission and feels lucky to be alive and doesn’t live in any kind of bitterness which is very inspiring to me.


Moderator: One from Dalton Gacle with Ohio State University.


Q: To go along with the animation question, why did you choose that particular style of animation as opposed to any other style?


Davis:  Thank you, Dalton. It’s a good question. The film opens with the story of the battle of Maiwand where the British Army is fighting the Afghani army and the Afghanistan Army is losing and this girl rallies, she gives this big speech and rallies the Afghanis to win to victory.

I could have done the reenactment with guys with helmets or animate it in a style that was the way I would imagine it. But the choice we decided that—what if Malala, imagine Malala being 11-years-old and her head is on her pillow and she’s about to go to sleep and she was imagining the story and thinking I was named after this girl. And she’s thinking, she’s just imagining it in her own mind, so from the point of view from a young girl. If you think of it that way, it should be childlike and storybook and impressionistic.


Moderator: From Zach Mize with Avila University.

Q: My question is about Malala’s father, Ziauddin. He named Malala after that mythical Afghanistan heroine who was killed on her speaking out; it’s just such a quintessential key to her …in this movement that’s erupted. Will you just talk about some of your interactions with him and share some things that you’ve learned from him?


Davis:  Yes. There’s sort of a riddle that I wanted to sort of solve by making the movie which is, what is it between this father and this daughter that created this amazing thing, this phenomenon?

Ziauddin, her father, was almost a Taliban. He talks about how as a young man he was inspired by the idea of jihad. He used to pray, please let me die in the war against non-Muslims. So he understood what it was like to be inspired by all the things that were inspiring some of this extreme violence that we’re seeing now. The Taliban just yesterday overtook the city in Afghanistan. ISIS is raging through the Middle East, and he could have been one of those young men.

But through his education he went on to college and learned about Martin Luther King, learned about passive resistance, learned about human rights, and really took those values to heart in a way that maybe sometimes here in the states we learn them and we take them for granted. He was very taken by it. When he started his own school he felt almost like he was on a mission to build a school for girls, to raise girls as equals, to raise his daughter as equal and to name her, to give her this name and to say, no, I’m going to draw a line in the sand and my daughter will be different.

Of course that draws criticism. Did he create her? Is she just a person of his making? I think when you watch the movie you have to watch and draw your own conclusions. It’s the reason why I picked that title, which sort of provokes that question. Why did he name her this? What does that mean?


Moderator: We have a question from Marie D’Andera with Fordham University.


Q: I had a different question but you changed my mind on something you said.


Davis:  You can’t change your question midway through, that’s against the rules. I’m joking. I’m joking. I’m joking.


Q: It’s okay. You said that you talked about the perspective of Malala and channeling her perspective in the film. I was wondering what best allowed you to channel this perspective because you talk a lot about the female mindset and making the movie through the lens of a young girl. What allowed you to do that best because obviously you’re not a young girl? So what allowed that?

Davis:  I’m a 51-year-old dude and my father’s Jewish and my mother’s Episcopalian, how dare I even attempt to tell her story? That sort of worried me, maybe I shouldn’t be telling this story, but I feel like that’s the one unique thing that I really do well. Without being immodest, is that I’m a very sort of emphatic person and I try very hard to get inside people’s brains and I try to pull them out of themselves.

One of the persistent comments that people have after watching “Inconvenient Truth” is, where was that Al Gore when he ran for office? I felt like my job was to pull him out in ways that he himself didn’t know how to do. I think Malala would say to you that I really—my process was a great way to get her to speak about things that she, herself, had never spoken about before.

Part of it’s just what I’ve learned over the years, which is just to have these very quiet sit down interviews. These sort of very thoughtful conversations in the process of sort of letting the character tell their own story as opposed to a filmmaker putting their stamp on things. I was very conscious of this very question and very conscious of me trying to step out of the way and taking away my own presuppositions and letting her lead and letting her father lead telling their own story. I feel like I’m sort of a midwife in a lot of ways. It’s my job to sort of help people give birth to their own story.


Moderator: I have a question from Clara Lane with Southern Methodist.


Q: My question is, there’s so many different aspects of this movie, I mean lessons that the audience can take away, whether it’s about religion itself or education among women or education in Islamic countries. But what is the main message that you would want your audience to take away?


Davis: You’re asking me to say something that I never say, which is that I don’t ever want to say what the message is. I think that’s—there’s a great filmmaker that said the filmmaker’s job is 2 + 2 and the audience’s job is 4. The point being that I sort of want to raise questions in the making of my movies. What people take away is up to them and by doing that the audience has to engage as opposed to being passive.

Certainly I feel like there are some big, important themes in this movie that I want the audience as they watch this to wrestle with. I hope I never tell people what the message of my movie is.


Moderator: We have a question from Regina Fox with Ohio State.


Q: So a large portion of the film focuses on Malala’s everyday life with her friends and family. I was wondering if one of your objectives of the movie was to give Malala a chance to just be a normal teenage girl rather than this international speaker and advocate?


Davis:  Yes. I mean, first of all, my experience was walking into their home that this is a really fun, joyful place and I didn’t realize that their family was just like my family. Even though they’re a Muslim family from 7,000 miles away from my home, they were arm-wrestling and teasing each other. Malala was like any other girl opening up her laptop and looking at pictures of Brad Pitt.

It was really important to me to show that side of her. That she’s just a normal girl. It’s too easy for us to make our heroes untouchable and put them on a pedestal; well I could never be like her. Truth is she is just an ordinary girl who became famous because she was brave and she made an extraordinary choice in her life to speak out.


Moderator: We have a question from Jasmine Kenper from Arizona State.


Q: Hi again. I was just wondering what your favorite moment with Malala and her family was?


Davis:  My favorite moment. That’s a good question. There’s so many. In all my movies that I’ve ever made, I’ve never felt so close to a family before and there’s a lot of love exchanged between my family and her family. My kids are close with their kids. So there’s not one moment particularly, but just the sense of—

It’s really kind of corny but you—telling a story has a way of bridging barriers and this experience for me is to meet this family from the other part of the world with a religion I didn’t quite understand, a culture I didn’t quite understand. That was a beautiful thing for me to know this family and to open my mind.


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