10 THINGS I RATE ABOUT YOU
He’s made films with Barack Obama, U2 and Al Gore–so how did Davis Guggenheim get on with teenager Malala You safzai?
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.”
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
Malala Yousafzai. Below right, with her father and director Davis Guggenheim.