WASHINGTON — She was just 15 years old when she was shot in the head by the Taliban in an attempt to silence her campaign for children’s education and human rights.
Now, the entire world will hear from the world’s youngest Nobel Peace Prize recipient, 18-year-old Pakistani native Malala Yousafzai, in the new documentary “He Named Me Malala.”
The film recently made its non-festival premiere at the National Geographic Museum in Northwest and opens to the general D.C. public on Friday — exactly three years since the Taliban shooting.
The film is directed by Davis Guggenheim, who graduated from both the Potomac School in McLean, Virginia and Sidwell Friends School in D.C. before winning an Oscar for the climate-change doc “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006), riffing with guitar legends in the rock documentary “It Might Get Loud” (2008) and questioning tenure with the education documentary “Waiting for Superman” (2010).
“There’s no better feeling than to feel part of something. I like my movies to be not just movies, they’re part of participating in something.” Guggenheim tells WTOP. “Teenage girls, their mothers, their fathers will come away feeling inspired, but they’ll also come away being part of something.”
Producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald — formerly of DreamWorks — read Malala’s inspirational book “I Am Malala” and originally considered turning her story into a dramatic narrative film. However, they ultimately decided there was no way to cast a young actress to play the one-of-a-kind Malala. So, they called up Guggenheim and pitched the project as a documentary.
“I had read that she had been shot on her school bus. What I didn’t realize was what an extraordinary story she has,” Guggenheim says. “Her father named her after this character Malalai of Maiwand, who rallied the Afghan troops to defeat the British at the Battle of Maiwand. She’s named after a girl who speaks out and is killed for speaking out. How could you write something like that?”
So, Guggenheim paid a visit to Malala to meet with this exceptional young lady.
“I took a cab to their home in Birmingham, England, rang the doorbell, and Malala just walked outside and let me in,” Guggenheim says. “They immediately opened their doors to me.”
His lens shows us both an intimate look at Malala’s personal life and her public persona.
“She’s arm wrestling with her brothers. They’re laughing and teasing each other. You’re also seeing her out there in the world trying to fight for girl’s education. There are 66 million girls who are out of school, and to her, it’s her sense of mission. … I was with her when she went to the White House and asked President Obama about drone strikes. She’s fearless. … I’ve seen her in Nigeria when she asked their president why he isn’t doing more for the girls who were kidnapped. But I also see her at home surfing the web and looking for pictures of Brad Pitt and Roger Federer. She’s an ordinary girl.”
That’s the key to Malala’s story. Turning the ordinary into the extraordinary.
“I think sometimes we put people on a pedestal and we think we could never be like that,” Guggenheim says. “She was an ordinary girl. They were taking away something that was very meaningful to her. They were blowing up schools. They were flogging women. And she said, ‘I’m gonna step up, I’m gonna use my words to fight this terrible thing.’ That’s what’s so incredible.”
Malala reached a tipping point after the Taliban blew up 400 schools around Swat Valley where she lived with her progressive Muslim parents, including a father who built a girls education school in Pakistan. In this way, “He Named Me Malala” provides American viewers an insightful look at a peaceful, educated Muslim family to counter the negative impression of radical extremists like ISIS.
“I’m half Jewish, half Episcopalian. I never really got to know in a real way a Muslim family. So I didn’t know what it would be like to walk into their home,” Guggenheim says. “What I realized, and what you see when you see this movie, is a family just like mine. Charming, wonderful, funny, irreverent.”
The film suggests that the quickest way to break down religious boundaries is to fight for gender equality for all women around the world — particularly young girls.
“There are so many world’s problems that seem impossible to solve, but educating girls is the one thing we know works,” he says. “It’s a silver bullet. When you educate a girl, it transforms her life. It transforms our lives because we have productive societies. We have more humane societies.”
Guggenheim admits the experience gave him a reality check about his own parenting.
“It made me think about what kind of father I am. I have three kids, two daughters. And even though they’re from this other part of the world 7,000 miles away (from Malala), I started to ask, do I really believe that my daughters are equal? Am I doing everything I can to make my daughters feel like they can do what this incredible girl has done, which is to speak out and fight for what she believes? … Do I really think my daughters are equal to my sons? Yes, I think they are, but do I act that way?”
This humble look in the mirror didn’t always provide the answers he hoped.
“Sometimes when I think of something that’s on my mind, I ask my son what he thinks, (but) I don’t ask my daughter. So I think maybe I could do more,” Guggenheim admits. “I think that’s what so appealing about this movie … because the choices (Malala’s family) made play upon me and they ask me these fundamental questions about what kind of father am I.”
Guggenheim hopes that audience members will have a similar soul-searching experience.
“My dream was, when I started this movie, the very first day, I was like, ‘What if teenage girls said to their parents, I want to go see this movie? This movie speaks to me.’ What if this movie spoke to girls all around the world? … I think girls everywhere are saying, ‘This is a story for me. I want to bring my father. I’m going to bring my mother to go see this movie.'”
Changes the meaning of a family trip to the movies, now doesn’t it?
Listen to the full interview below. Interview was conducted prior to the screening at Nat Geo: