Profile in Courage

By Norman Boucher / November/December 2015
November 13th, 2015

When Hollywood producers first asked Davis Guggenheim ’86 to direct a documentary about Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl whom a Taliban soldier shot and nearly killed three years ago simply for going to school, he hesitated. Guggenheim, who had earlier directed Waiting for Superman, It Might Get Loud, and An Inconvenient Truth (which won the 2007 Best Documentary Oscar) knew little more than the rest of us about Malala: that after she boarded her school bus in the Swat district of northwestern Pakistan one day in October 2012, a Taliban soldier climbed onto the bus, asked for her by name, and shot her three times. Guggenheim had also seen the stories about her activism for educating girls around the world and her resulting 2014 Nobel Peace Prize .

Rythum Vinoben
After screening his film on Malala, Davis Guggenheim spoke about the insights he gained from her family.

It wasn’t until he entered Malala’s family home in Birmingham, England, that Guggenheim discovered the story he would use to frame He Named Me Malala, the new documentary he screened at the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts on September 15. (The film hit theaters in October.) “I saw,” he said in a discussion with provost and Watson Institute director Richard Locke after the film’s screening, “a kitchen table just like mine,” around which Malala and her brothers did their homework and teased one another under the quiet, watchful eye of their father, Ziauddin. What struck him was the ordinariness of this teenager who had become a world figure, who spoke before the United Nations and traveled to countries in Africa and the Middle East to speak for the 66 million girls worldwide who are not allowed to go to school.

Guggenheim also soon learned that Ziauddin was a builder of schools in Pakistan and an outspoken advocate for education who was unafraid to take on the Taliban. It was Ziauddin who asked Malala if she would be willing to speak to the press—at first anonymously—as a girl in an isolated part of Pakistan defying the Taliban in the name of education, a role she willingly took on. “I realized,” Guggenheim said, “this was a father-daughter story.”

In a sense it was a role that Ziauddin was preparing for his daughter from the day she was born. As He Named Me Malala shows through the use of muted animation sequences, Malalai of Maiwand is a young folk hero in Afghanistan who united Pashtun troops in the late nineteenth century so they could repel British troops in the Second Anglo-Afghan War. As the film points out, Ziauddin named his daughter, who spoke out and was nearly killed, after a teenager who spoke out and was killed.

The personal and quotidian details Guggenheim depicts serve both as relief from the gruesome, violent images of the Taliban and their victims—including Malala—and as a way of connecting her remarkably articulate, forthright, and witty self with a double-edged story of a parent’s moral responsibility to speak out for justice while keeping his daughter safe from men who have vowed to kill her.

Images of the blood-stained bus in which Malala was shot and of this unconscious and bloodied girl taken from hospital to hospital to have a metal plate inserted into her shattered skull seem even more overwhelming when they follow scenes in which the family plays a spirited card game around the kitchen table and the teenaged Malala, internationally renowned, wonders whether she is as smart as her English classmates and whether they will accept her as a friend. One of her brothers notes that one moment she is meeting Bono and the next she is back at the table doing her homework.

What makes He Named Me Malala a moving film is Guggenheim’s firm but sensitive exploration of the relationship between Malala and Ziauddin. Malala says she grew up watching her father as a teacher and a public speaker in their town. (Malala’s mother began school as the only girl in her class, but soon abandoned her education.) Ziauddin’s greatest lesson, Malala says, was “how to raise your voice.” As the Taliban become more powerful, Ziauddin says in the film, he concludes: “If I did not speak, I would be the most guilty man.” After the shooting, whenever Malala awoke, the first thing she’d do was ask for her father, to make sure he had not been killed. Later, as she travels the world as an advocate for education, Guggenheim captures moments inside their car when she is a tired girl resting in the arms of her loving father.

Yet, while she is still unconscious, Malala’s father wonders if she will admonish him, imagining what she might say: I was a child. Why didn’t you stop me? What happened to me is because of you. It’s a rare moment of questioning in this film about a young woman confident beyond her years. At another point, Guggenheim, gently probing, tells her, “One thing I noticed about you. You don’t like to talk about your suffering.” Malala seems to retreat inside herself for a moment before smiling in unspoken agreement.

When asked more directly about her father’s influence later in the film, Malala says, “My father only gave me the name Malala. He did not make me Malala. I chose this life.”

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November/December 2015