Malala’s Ordinary Greatness

Documentarian Davis Guggenheim won an Oscar for Al Gore’s controversial film about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth. He also told the inside story of Obama’s first four years in office and showed the world intimate stories of rockers such as Jimmy Page, Jack White and U2. But of all that, it’s the relationship of a teenage Pakistani Muslim girl and her father that has personally challenged him the most.

“It’s hard to describe it. It’s so powerful,” Guggenheim says of the connection between Malala Yousafzai–who was awarded the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize at age 17–and her father Ziauddin. Her defiant public activism against the Taliban led the terrorist group to attempt to assassinate her when she was only 15 years old (she survived a bullet to the head). But for Guggenheim, it’s the symbiotic bond she has with her father that made him want to tell her—and their—story in his latest cinematic portrait, He Named Me Malala.

The Father-Daughter Relationship

“I was just drawn initially, very simply, to this father/daughter relationship,” Guggenheim says. “I have two daughters, and I find being a father a mysterious act. I try to be a good father, but I feel lost most of the time.”

Because of how “very shy” his own teenager Stella is, Guggenheim says, “I wanted to know why this girl Malala grew up feeling so confident, and what was the nature of that relationship.”

He came to discover that the power all started with the name. Malala is named after the main character of a traditional spoken poem.

The film opens with a beautifully textured animated sequence that depicts this real-life legend of a courageous girl in war-torn Afghanistan. Guggenheim describes her as a “Joan of Arc” heroine who “has this sense of destiny. Ziauddin names his daughter after this girl who’s killed for speaking out, and then his daughter is almost killed for speaking out. It’s epic.”

Guggenheim uses Ziauddin’s naming of his daughter as a starting point to get at the root of Malala’s own sense of identity. “What is the nature of her greatness? Well, it’s complicated. It’s definitely born of Ziauddin’s sense of mission, and in a beautiful way, he indoctrinated her. But the question is: Is she her own person? Does she have free will? Or is she a product of his design?

“I like to provoke that question as I tell the story. I want the audience to have to figure that out as they watch it, and I challenge her with that. When she finally answers that, it’s a very powerful moment.”

A Peaceful Version of Islam

The other controversial aspect to this story, of course, is Islam itself. It’s a religion that some in America are quick to stereotype, while others remain leery of confronting its radicalized sects. With broad generalizations coming from one side, and political correctness coming from the other, having an honest, full conversation about Islam has proven to be almost impossible—but trying to elevate that conversation was actually not one of Guggenheim’s goals.

“The important thing to understand,” he says, “is that I didn’t set out to make a movie to help people understand the Muslim world. I set out to tell a story about a family. If by doing that we understand the Muslim world better, that’s great.”

Nevertheless, Guggenheim confesses, his journey over the course of making this film was “realizing, very quickly, that I was ignorant about this culture and this religion, that I saw the Muslim world as a monolith.” But, he adds, “to say that a Christian is ‘this’ or ‘that’ would be foolish. There are so many versions of Christianity, the full spectrum of good and bad. It’s very safe to say that’s true of Islam, as well. What’s disturbing in America is that we only get a narrow, twisted, dark version of that narrative.”

It’s because of that dark version that many in the West wish more moderate Muslims would speak out against its violent extremists. “Early on I asked them, ‘Where are the moderate Muslims,” Guggenheim recalls, “and it was kind of an offensive question to them. After all, does every Christian have to speak out against every bad Christian?”

Even so, when moderate Muslims have spoken out in that part of the world, he says, “a lot of them have been killed.” Malala was nearly another statistic among them.

“What’s beautiful about Malala and her father,” Guggenheim says, “is that it’s their faith that has given them the courage. It doesn’t make sense to a lot of people that Malala would risk her life to speak out. It didn’t make sense to people that her father would let her speak out. But it was her faith that tells her it is her duty. It’s a pure and more beautiful version of this faith to say ‘It’s my duty to speak out for the truth.’”

The Inspiration of an Ordinary Girl

It’s that kind of resolve that will not only open the eyes of Westerners and set an example for other peace-loving Muslims but also, as Guggenheim emphasizes, will inspire young girls like his two daughters, who are 14 and 9.

“Malala loves my daughters, and my daughters love Malala,” he says, beaming. “She’s given them this sense of purpose.”

Guggenheim describes a moment during a discussion that followed the film’s first private screening, held for a group of people he affectionately referred to as “do-gooders,” in which his oldest daughter completely surprised him.

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“Stella grabs the microphone—this shy girl who will barely talk to my wife and me, she’s going to speak to this large group of impressive adults—and she gave a rather impassioned speech about being equal and standing up, and then she finished it all by saying this: ‘I will never live in the shadows.’”

What inspires girls about Malala, Guggenheim says, is seeing not only how brave she is but also how normal she is—which is why, along with her passionate exploits, the film also shows Malala crushing on hot celebrities, teasing her brothers and struggling with homework.

“I think it’s important to see that she is an ordinary girl,” he says. “Because of this moment that she didn’t choose (the assassination attempt on her life), she’s become this sort of icon. And that’s dangerous, because we tend to put people on a pedestal. We think they’re super-human, and then think, ‘Oh, I could never be that person.’

“But when you see the movie,” he says, “you see that she is an ordinary girl. And I want girls to know that, to feel like they can be extraordinary, too.”

Guggenheim laughs as he recalls a moment at the White House, one that defines the level of confidence and conviction he hopes other girls will aspire to.

“The fact that Malala can walk into the Oval Office,” he says, “and ask President Obama really tough questions about drone strikes, something most adults wouldn’t dare ask him because maybe it’s the most sensitive question of his presidency. Well, she doesn’t mind doing that.”

It’s a level of sacredness that, as she expresses in the film, has led Malala genuinely to forgive those who tried to kill her, and those who still want to.

“You would imagine,” Guggenheim concludes, “that after having been attacked, having injuries, and having to leave your home country (her family is currently in British exile), that you might become a selfish, angry person. But she’s free of bitterness. She’s free of any of that.”

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