Filmmaker shines a light on Malala

An interview with director Davis Guggenheim

click to enlarge Malala Yousafzai in He Named Me Malala.
Malala Yousafzai in He Named Me Malala.
Malala Yousafzai in He Named Me Malala.
“I wondered if she was too good to be true.”

No one could blame filmmaker Davis Guggenheim for being skeptical where the subject of his latest documentary, He Named Me Malala, is concerned. Activist Malala Yousafzai was thrust into the international spotlight in the aftermath of events that occurred in Pakistan on Oct. 9, 2012, when she was shot three times – once in the head – by members of the Taliban while riding a bus. Her crime? Speaking out against the terrorist group’s policy of shutting down schools and denying education to women.

News of this incident swept the globe, prompting international outrage and condemnation of the act. Rather than going into hiding, Yousafzai took advantage of the fact that she was front and center on the world stage, becoming a symbol of resistance and an advocate for women’s rights, particularly those of teenagers and young girls. Her passion for her position has not flagged as she’s gone on to speak at the United Nations on two occasions, has spoken with various world leaders, including President Jonathan of Nigeria and President Barack Obama, about human rights issues, written a memoir about her experiences and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for her work. Not bad for a girl 18 years of age.

Her work has not been without controversy. Many have suspected that her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, an education activist in his own right, had been using his daughter as a mouthpiece for his views. This was a suspicion Guggenheim initially had himself. “Like a lot of people, I couldn’t help but wonder if her father was the one pulling the strings,” the director said during a recent stopover in Chicago to promote the film. “When you see extraordinary kids like this, it’s usually the parents telling them what to do. But she is the real deal. She has an unworldly sense of poise.”

Guggenheim was able to witness this firsthand as the Yousafzai family granted him access to their home in England over the course of two years, living with them for long periods, getting to know them intimately. Over this time, he saw Malala make steady progress on her road to recovery. “She was sent to Birmingham as they have one of the best head trauma hospitals in the world,” he recounts. “She got better. I met her and she was still in physical therapy and trying to speak again. When I met them they were still trying to figure out England. They were in their second house and now they are in their fifth. She was trying to fit into this English school and now she’s much more settled. Physically she’s much better and she’s made a few close friends, so that helps.”

He Named Me Malala chronicles how its subject and her family handled not only the whirlwind of publicity that engulfed them after the attack, but also how she took advantage of her sudden international recognition. She met with world leaders and spoke to the United Nations General Assembly. “She has this poise that’s adult-like but she asks simple questions and that makes her voice very special,” Guggenheim says. “How many people can pick up the phone and have a world leader answer and how many of those are girls? There’s one. She does that with President Obama, she does that with the head of Nigeria. We have this activist who can speak for all these other girls. I think she feels that this is her mission, that there are millions of other girls like her, displaced and have had their lives threatened. She feels it is her job to speak for them.”

One of the most refreshing things about Guggenheim’s film are scenes that show Malala doing things that a normal teenage girl would – playing with her brothers, laughing at her own jokes, associating with peers – that seem a world away from the platform of international advocacy. The director sees this as the key to understanding her as well as others who seem larger than life. “Sometimes when we put people on a pedestal we think they’re bigger than life and that there’s no way we can do what they do,” he says. “But seeing her as a normal girl tells me that my daughters could be that extraordinary. You just have to make those bold choices.”

He Named Me Malala starts in area theaters Oct. 9.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at

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