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‘Malala’ reveals a real-life teen hero

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Nobel Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai and Davis Guggenheim talk about peace, and other things, in “He Named Me Malala.” (Courtesy Caroline Furneaux/Twentieth Century Fox)
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Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim says he made his Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth” with a certain audience in mind: his Republican cousins living in Ohio.

While making his new documentary “He Named Me Malala,” he was thinking about his own daughters, ages 9 and 14.

“What makes me happy is that my daughters have a real hero — someone they can try to be like, instead of a hero that says you should be more famous or more skinny,” says Guggenheim, who visited The City to promote the movie, which opens Friday.

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The film tells the extraordinary story of Malala Yousafzai, a teen Pakistani activist who was shot by the Taliban for daring to suggest that girls should be educated. With the threat of death hanging over her and her family, today she lives in England, where she’s continuing her human rights activism.

She is the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Malala was 15 when Guggenheim sat down with her, with no camera crew, in her little “office” (“which is like a closet with a computer and a desk,” he says) and just talked.

“Out of that came these rich stories that I hadn’t read. It feels like she’s narrating the movie, but she’s not. She’s just talking to me,” says Guggenheim.

After Malala and her family saw the movie, they suggested a few subtle changes in translation, and Malala requested a new interview, to speak about Islam. “She said this line about the Taliban that changes the whole movie: ‘They’re not about faith, they’re about power,’” Guggenheim explains.

Guggenheim describes meals with Malala’s family, how at first he was nervous about respecting their culture, and having trouble eating with his fingers, before he realized they were “lovely people.”

“Even though they dress differently and they eat a little differently, they’re kind of like my family. They tease each other and laugh,” he says.

The fact that the movie opens a small window onto a largely misunderstood culture was a welcome side effect Guggenheim hadn’t intended. And while some have some have accused “He Named Me Malala” for being too “soft,” Guggenheim says his approach was to be open-hearted rather than a hard-hitting journalist. To that end, the film doesn’t really illustrate any of Malala’s flaws.

Guggenheim says, “I asked her once, ‘Do you ever get scared when you do interviews?’ And she said, ‘I only get scared talking to little kids. Little kids ask really difficult questions, like: “Why do people kill each other, and why are so many people suffering?”’ That says a lot about her.”

IF YOU GO

He Named Me Malala
Starring Malala Yousafzai
Directed by Davis Guggenheim
Rated PG-13
Running time 1 hour, 27 minutes

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