He’s made films with Barack Obama, U2 and Al Gore–so how did Davis Guggen­heim get on with teenager Malala You safzai?

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

If you can tell some­thing – any­thing – about a per­son by the com­pany he or she keeps, then there ought to be some­thing of a su­per­star about Davis Guggen­heim. He is, af­ter all, the Academy Award-win­ning di­rec­tor of

An In­con­ve­nient Truth, fea­tur­ing former vice pres­i­dent Al Gore. He has also worked twice with Barack Obama, cre­at­ing the in­flu­en­tial in­fomer­cial A

Mother’s Prom­ise, a bi­o­graph­i­cal film that screened dur­ing the 2008 Demo­cratic Con­ven­tion, and, more re­cently, Obama’s 2012 con­ven­tion promo.

Al­most in­evitably, Guggen­heim knows Bono and the lads, hav­ing worked with The Edge on the gui­tar doc­u­men­tary It Might

Get Loud (2008) and with the en­tire gang on From the Sky Down (2011).

And then there’s Jack White, Jimmy Page . . . He cer­tainly has some glitzy chums. “I’m just a ser­vice provider,” laughs the Mis­souri-born di­rec­tor. “Peo­ple of­ten think I’m re­lated to the mu­seum. But I’m not.”

He is, nonethe­less, from film­mak­ing stock. His wife is the Academy Award-nom­i­nated ac­tress Elis­a­beth Shue and his fa­ther was the film di­rec­tor and pro­ducer Charles Guggen­heim, who re­ceived more than 10 Os­car nods for his po­lit­i­cal doc­u­men­taries and who won in 1968 for his short bi­o­graph­i­cal por­trait, Robert Kennedy Re­mem­bered.

In keep­ing with the fam­ily guild, Davis Guggen­heim’s films are of­ten po­lit­i­cal or politi­cised: Wait­ing for Su

per­man of­fers a cri­tique of the Amer­i­can pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem; The First Year chron­i­cles the lives of five teach­ers work­ing in in­ner-city Los An­ge­les; and The Dream is Now fol­lows un­doc­u­mented US-born youths des­per­ate to earn cit­i­zen­ship.

“It hap­pened by ac­ci­dent,” says Guggen­heim, who has also di­rected episodes of Dead­wood,

Alias, ER and The Shield. “I moved to LA to get away from my fa­ther’s in­ter­ests. But then I got fired off a big movie and ended up mak­ing a film about teach­ers. I think about the films as sto­ries rather than films that ad­vo­cate some­thing specif­i­cally. They’re sto­ries, not cam­paigns.”

Fa­ther and daugh­ter

In this spirit He Named Me Malala, Guggen­heim’s new doc­u­men­tary about the young Pak­istani ac­tivist and No­bel Peace Prize lau­re­ate, of­fers a very per­sonal, in­ti­mate por­trait of a daugh­ter and her dad.

“I have two daugh­ters and I wanted to solve a mys­tery,” says Guggen­heim. “My daugh­ters are a mys­tery to me. As a fa­ther I am mys­ti­fied and con­fused as to how I can be a good fa­ther to my daugh­ters. How do I make them feel like they have a voice and that they are strong?”

Malala Yousafzai – for any­one who has been liv­ing un­der the sea for many years – was tar­geted by the Tal­iban and shot in the head while re­turn­ing home on her school bus in Pak­istan’s Swat Val­ley. The then 15-year-old (she re­cently turned 18) was sin­gled out, along with her fa­ther, for ad­vo­cat­ing for girls’ ed­u­ca­tion. She is cur­rently a lead­ing cam­paigner for girls’ ed­u­ca­tion glob­ally as co-founder of the Malala Fund.

“She is one of the most re­mark­able peo­ple I have ever met,” says Guggen­heim. “I first met her at 15, then 16, then 17, and it’s ex­tra­or­di­nary. She has a quiet­ness about her. Malala is al­ways very still. She is where she is. There’s a pres­ence to her. There’s also a clar­ity of voice. She com­mu­ni­cates so well. And she does so in her third lan­guage. I’ve seen her sit down with girls from Kenya and peo­ple on the Syr­ian bor­der – they don’t know who she is – and they’ll sit qui­etly in the dirt talk­ing to her.”

The film touches on hugely im­por­tant is­sues, yet avoids heavy geopol­i­tics in favour of in­ti­mate de­tails. The No­bel Peace Prize lau­re­ate, we soon learn, is not above smack­ing her lit­tle brother when her par­ents aren’t look­ing. She also likes gaz­ing at pic­tures of Pak­istani cricket cap­tain Shahid Afridi and ten­nis champ Roger Fed­erer.

“I have an au­di­ence in mind when I make a movie,” says the di­rec­tor. “With An In­con­ve­nient

Truth I wanted to play to Repub­li­cans in Ohio who didn’t be­lieve

“I have an au­di­ence in mind when I make a movie . . . With this movie I had teenage girls in mind. My own daugh­ters. Val­ley girls in Los An­ge­les or teenage girls in Tokyo or Pak­istan and every­where be­tween. I wanted the movie to in­vite them in. I wanted them to feel like it is their story”

in cli­mate change. I wanted to con­vince them – or at least have them con­sider – that cli­mate change was pos­si­ble. There’s no point preach­ing to eco-minded peo­ple in LA on cli­mate change. With this movie I had teenage girls in mind. My own daugh­ters. Val­ley girls in Los An­ge­les or teenage girls in Tokyo or Pak­istan and every­where be­tween. I wanted the movie to in­vite them in. I wanted them to feel like it is their story.”

He must have felt a de­gree of pres­sure re­gard­ing his sub­ject’s age: no­body wants to be the guy who com­mits some­thing to film that’s go­ing to make a girl feel mor­ti­fied later on.

“The thing about her and her fam­ily is that they’re a com­plete open book,” he says. “They don’t mind that she’s on the lap­top look­ing at pic­tures of Brad Pitt or who­ever. I wasn’t too wor­ried about em­bar­rass­ing her. But I did feel an enor­mous re­spon­si­bil­ity be­cause she’s such a re­mark­able per­son. She’s un­like any­one I’ve ever met. She was still re­cov­er­ing from her in­juries when I met her. And I felt like I had to get it right. I had one chance to tell this story prop­erly.”

Birm­ing­ham fam­ily

The film takes us around many lo­ca­tions as Malala spreads her global mes­sage, but much of the ac­tion takes place in Birm­ing­ham, where the fam­ily have set­tled.

“You think that if you read a lot about the pol­i­tics of a situa- tion that you un­der­stand some­thing. You read up on the in­volve­ment of the Rus­sians and the Amer­i­cans and the Tal­iban so you imag­ine you un­der­stand Syria. But when they an­swered the door for the first time in Birm­ing­ham I re­alised I’d never met a Mus­lim fam­ily in this way be­fore. The Mus­lim world is not a mono­lith. It’s fre­quently de­picted that way. But it’s not. Pak­istan had a his­tory of ed­u­ca­tion. The Tal­iban weren’t al­ways there. It was never an in­ten­tion of mine go­ing in to make the movie, but it’s a win­dow to a part of the Mus­lim world that most of us never see.”

And how did his two daugh­ters – that tar­get de­mo­graphic – re­spond to the fin­ished film?

“They’ve met Malala. So they’re proud of their dad. But also, and I know it sounds preachy, but my heart opened. It’s a big dif­fer­ence when you come home to your fam­ily af­ter a re­ally long day. Maybe I’ve been work­ing on a TV show. Or maybe, ‘I was at the Syr­ian bor­der with Malala and let me tell you what I saw. It’s some­thing we can’t ig­nore as a fam­ily: we have to help.’

“There’s no bet­ter way to use my skills as a di­rec­tor than to tell sto­ries that can do some good in the world. And there’s no higher cause than ed­u­cat­ing girls. It’s the one thing we know that works.”

He Named Me Malala is out now on gen­eral re­lease, and is re­viewed on page 11

Main pho­to­graph: Jonathan Nack­strand/AFP/Getty

No­bel voice

Malala Yousafzai. Be­low right, with her fa­ther and di­rec­tor Davis Guggen­heim.

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