Malala and the man with a mis­sion

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BYMICHAEL O'SUL­LI­VAN michael.osul­li­van@wash­ He Named Me Malala (PG-13, 88 min­utes). At area the­aters.

Sit­ting down for an in­ter­view in the Georgetown Ritz-Carl­ton, just across the street from the unas­sum­ing brick build­ing where his fa­ther, Charles Guggen­heim, put to­gether his Os­car-win­ning doc­u­men­taries, film­maker Davis Guggen­heim re­flects on his roots. The 51-year-old D.C. na­tive turned Cal­i­for­nia moviemaker — him­self an Os­car win­ner for “An In­con­ve­nient Truth” (2006) —is back in the town where he grew up to pro­mote his latest doc­u­men­tary, “He Named Me Malala,” about Pak­istani ed­u­ca­tion ac­tivist and No­bel Peace Prize win­ner Malala Yousafzai.

Guggen­heim spent two years film­ing Mal ala in Birm­ing­ham, Eng­land, where her fam­ily moved af­ter the teenager was shot in 2012 by a Tal­iban hitman as­signed to si­lence her for her out­spo­ken ad­vo­cacy of girls’ ed­u­ca­tion. As the film makes clear, her voice has not been muted since then. In­fact, Malala’s celebrity is a bully pulpit, af­ford­ing her the op­por­tu­nity to speak out on an ar­ray of hu­man rights is­sues. Two years ago, Mal ala vis­ited the White House, where she con­fronted Pres­i­dent Obama about drone strikes, say­ing they fu­eled ter­ror­ism.

We chat­ted with Guggen­heim, who cut his teeth on tele­vi­sion dra­mas, about his un­ex­pected ca­reer tra­jec­tory and the teenage doc­u­men­tary sub­ject he says he will re­mem­ber when he’s 70 as one of the most un­for­get­table in­di­vid­u­als he’s ever en­coun­tered.

Where did the idea tomake a film about Malala come from?

Wal­ter Parkes and Lau­rie Mac­Don­ald — the pro­duc­ers — orig­i­nally wanted to do a movie withan ac­tress. They’d got­ten the life [story] rights to Malala. But af­ter they met with her and flew back to L.A., they said, “Who would even play that part?” So they called me.

There are­many re­mark­able things about Malala, but the most re­mark­able of them may be her un­re­mark­able­ness.

I think it’s im­por­tant to say that she is an or­di­nary girl. It’ s a dan­ger­ous thing when we make peo­ple like this into our idols, into icons. Be­cause then we say, “I can’t be that.” But I be­lieve that my daugh­ters can be as brave as Malala.

On­the movie poster, it has the quote “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” That’s a pretty no­tion, but I also feel a lit­tle cyn­i­cal about whether it’s true.

It feels like a slo­gan. But there’s a story be­hind it, which never made it into the movie. When Malala was writ­ing her July 2013 United Na­tions speech, I had just started film­ing at that point. Her fa­ther was say­ing, “You need to write your speech.” And she had home­work; she was busy; she was a teenager; she was 15 at the time. Very late one day she just walked down­stairs and showed him a piece of pa­per. And she wrote that. If a mar­ket­ing firm had writ­ten that, yes. But when this is what a 15-year-old girl is say­ing at her first public speech af­ter be­ing shot by the Tal­iban, then it has res­o­nance.

There’s some­thing of a Malala back­lash, even among some of her own coun­try men. Is your aim to con­vince peo­ple of her virtues?

I was with a cab driver in Toronto. He’s Pash­tun, from her area. He took me to my ho­tel, and we were talk­ing about the movie. At first he said, “Isn’t she a tool of the CIA?” I go: “Well, I spent time with her when she was help­ing Syr­ian refugees. She’s a very spir­i­tual woman.” By the end, he was say­ing she’s a hero. This is in the course of a 15-minute cab ride, which he wouldn’t let me pay for. If a movie can take you to the place that I’ve been to, and the au­di­ence can ex­pe­ri­ence what I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced, then I feel — suc­cess might not be the right word, but I’m sat­is­fied that I did my job.

Some re­views of the film have de­scribed it as a tear-jerker.

At Toronto, there was a lot of cry­ing. I wasn’t go­ing for tears, be­cause also there’s a lot of laugh­ter. I think “He Named Me Malala” is the fun­ni­est movie I’ve ever made. Which is not say­ing a lot. The bar is very low.

“Malala” shares a theme of ed­u­ca­tion with “Wait­ing for Su­per­man,” “An In­con­ve­nient Truth” and even your first film, “The First Year,” about Teach for Amer­ica teach­ers. Is this an abid­ing in­ter­est?

It’s re­ally weird. It was never a con­scious choice, and in many ways it was the least ob­vi­ous one. I was a ter­ri­ble stu­dent. When I went to Sid­well Friends, there were 100 kids inmy class. I was the worst stu­dent, by far. But I had a few teach­ers who, de­spite all that, be­lieved in me.

How­did grow­ing up in Washington, the son of Charles Guggen­heim, shape you?

In a big way. I re­mem­ber be­ing 5, and my dad wak­ing me up. I thought it was the mid­dle of the night, be­cause it was dark out­side. He said, “Do you want to come to work with me to­day?” We got on a plane, and it was Robert Kennedy’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. There’s the can­di­date. The film crew’s there, load­ing film into mag­a­zines, and lights and ca­bles. And I said to my­self, “This is the most ex­cit­ing thing.”

Your fa­ther made doc­u­men­taries as well as po­lit­i­cal com­mer­cials. What do you say to those­who­have com­pared some of your fea­ture films to in­fomer­cials?

Some­one said that to me, but that doesn’t seem very fair.

Would you call the short films you made for the Obama pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns in­fomer­cials?

Well, one of them was an in­fomer­cial, be­cause the cam­paign bought TV time. And then I did an ac­com­plish­ments film for the sec­ond cam­paign, and that is the most in­fomer­cial-ly thing I’ve ever done. “An In­con­ve­nient Truth” says that cli­mate change is real. I want to see films with a point of view.

What warts did you leave out?

She doesn’t floss. I don’t like it when a film­maker has an agenda and I don’t know it. When­the con­tract is not clear, that’s when there’s a prob­lem. But I grew out of peo­ple like Michael Moore, who says: “Screw that. I’m go­ing to speak to what I be­lieve is the truth. And peo­ple can make up their own minds.” The au­di­ence came to him be­cause he was speak­ing some­thing that other peo­ple weren’t speak­ing. You might call him a pam­phle­teer, but he has an opin­ion, and we know it’s an opin­ion.

Where will Malala be in 20 years?

I wouldn’t want to pre­dict, but I think she’s ca­pa­ble of any­thing. The poise she has— I was with her that day when she vis­ited the pres­i­dent and she asked him about drone strikes. I know a lot of jour­nal­ists who would start to quiver if they asked him that, be­cause it’s one of the tougher ques­tions of his pres­i­dency. She called up [Nige­rian Pres­i­dent] Good­luck Jonathan and said: “Why aren’t you meet­ing with the fam­i­lies of the kid­napped girls? It’s your re­spon­si­bil­ity. You’re not do­ing your job.” Of­ten I’ve met peo­ple who are fa­mous, and as you get to know them, they dis­ap­point you. She never dis­ap­points me. She’s the most re­mark­able per­son I’ve ever met inmy life. The­most.

You have been de­scribed as a man with a mis­sion.

That sounds like you’re talk­ing about some­body else. One of my men­tors, [TV writer and pro­ducer] David Milch, says the best way to make God laugh is to tell him your plans. I used to work with my fa­ther, and I loved what he did. But af­ter col­lege, I drove to L.A. and said: “I will never make doc­u­men­taries. I can never be as good as my fa­ther. I’m go­ing to be a Hol­ly­wood di­rec­tor.” And I was semisuc­cess­ful. But I got fired from this film called “Train­ing Day,” which I was go­ing to di­rect with Den­zel Washington. I had fought to cast him, and I was the only one who wanted him. He said yes, and the next­day he fired me. For years Iwas an an­gry, bit­ter per­son be­cause it was so un­fair what he’ d done tome.

And then I bought a lit­tle cam­era and I had this in­stinct to tell a story of these friends of mine who were teach­ers, whoworked for Teach for Amer­ica. I was taken by this feel­ing that I could use my skill for some­thing that inspires me. It’s still not a “mis­sion” yet, but when I come home to my chil­dren, andmy day was a waste, I feel a lit­tle bit heart­bro­ken. With “An In­con­ve­nient Truth,” we caught light­ning in a bot­tle. Peo­ple weren’t just go­ing to a movie. They were part of a move­ment. That’s the best feel­ing in the world. I want to keep do­ing that un­til I get fired. Again.


Davis Guggen­heim, Malala Yousafzai and her fa­ther, Zi­aud­din Yousafzai, in Birm­ing­ham, Eng­land. The Os­car-win­ning di­rec­tor has a new doc­u­men­tary out on the teen No­bel Peace Prize win­ner, whom he con­sid­ers the most re­mark­able per­son he has met.

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