From “Superman” to Malala

Davis Guggenheim talks about education, Al Gore and making a film with Malala, the Nobel Prize–winning teenager.

29 mins read

Davis Guggenheim is the director of three of the most artistically and commercially successful documentaries of all time: An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for “Superman” and It Might Get Loud. He’s won an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth, a Sundance audience award for Waiting for “Superman” and has seen three of his documentaries garner over a million dollars in box office results. While the subjects of his docs seem quite disparate, Guggenheim approaches each with intense curiosity and a passion to tell stories in a clear, cogent manner.

It’s no surprise that Guggenheim was the first choice to direct He Named Me Malala, one of the most highly anticipated documentaries of the year. The story of Malala Yousafzai, a Pashtun girl from the Khyber area of Pakistan who resisted radically conservative Muslim extremists and advocated for her education and those of her peers only to be shot by a male teenaged member of the Taliban, is well known. Malala survived the shooting and has continued her advocacy for women’s and children’s rights. She has published a best-selling memoir, I Am Malala, and has won numerous awards, the most significant being the Nobel Peace Prize.

Davis Guggenheim’s He Named Me Malala is an important new film dealing with educational and human rights issues while profiling the charismatic Malala and her father, Ziauddin, who has had a profound impact on her life. POV spoke to Davis Guggenheim about He Named Me Malala and his directing career this summer via telephone. — MARC GLASSMAN

POV: Marc Glassman | DG: Davis Guggenheim

POV: Were you asked to make your new film about Malala Yousafzai, or did you approach Malala or the organisation around her?

DG: Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald are producers here in L.A., and they, like many others, wanted the rights to Malala’s story. They were given the rights to make a movie drama, but when they met Malala in England, they were really blown away by her presence. On their plane ride home back to L.A., they both had the same realisation: that it shouldn’t be a movie—what actress could play her?—it should be a documentary. A day or so later they called me. I was the fortunate recipient of their first call after they [had that revelation]. I think they really liked Waiting for “Superman,” which is a documentary I made about public education. They made the education connection and thought I’d be able to understand the issues that drove her to take a stand against the Taliban.

POV: Obviously you knew about Malala, but I was wondering about how much research was involved in making this project.

DG: Immediately after they called, I did a lot of reading—sort of superficial reading—and I thought, “Oh my gosh; this could make a great movie.” Once I started to make the movie I got deeper and deeper into it. At the core, I think what drew me in was the idea of a father-daughter story. I make a lot of movies that are issue-oriented— sometimes about social justice or things that have to do with getting people to take action—but what’s more important to me is the personal narrative. Immediately when I started reading about Malala, and especially her father, Ziauddin, I thought, “Well, there’s something here that’s very special.”

POV: I noticed right away that the title of the film is He Named Me Malala, as opposed to the book, which is I Am Malala. That appeared to me to be a tip of the hat to the father. I was wondering, first off, about your relationship to Zia, as filmmaker to subject, and then about how you caught his relationship to Malala on camera.

DG: It’s an interesting question. I would say the first step is asking if there is a personal part of the story that is important to me. In An Inconvenient Truth, for example, I wanted to examine Al Gore’s moment at that time after losing the 2000 election and where he was in his life. That was interesting to me. With Malala and her father’s story, the next step for me was asking what my personal connection is—what is there in my life that can help me to identify with them? In my case, I have two daughters—one is 14 and one is nine and I feel very confused as a father sometimes by the puzzle of what it takes to make my daughters feel confident and strong, and feel like they can speak out. I struggle with this question of what I can do to help build their confidence and sense of self, so with this film, I wanted to learn what had worked so well with Malala. It’s so great when you’re making movies and you want to learn. I wanted to know what the dynamic between this father and this daughter was—what was the recipe for this extraordinary girl; what were the ingredients for how she became so extraordinary?

POV: Do you think that the first one was the naming? You start off the film with an amazing animation sequence that recounts the tale of story of a legendary heroine Malalai. Do you think that by naming her Malala he was immediately saying to her, “I want to you to be that kind of heroine”?

DG: I think the movie asks that question, and I want the audience to answer it. The minute she’s born, he takes out the family tree, which goes back 300 years and only lists the names of men, no women, and in this single act, not only does he change the family tree to add a woman, or a girl, but he also starts this idea that she’s going to be different. And on top of that, there’s the question of the tale that she’s named after, which is a famous Pashtun story about Malalai, who is a Joan of Arc character who led the Afghan troops in battle to beat the British and spoke out, but died by doing it, which is interesting. The movie asks that question too—is it destiny, or is it something else?

POV: Certainly it leads you to speculate about Zia. I read up a bit about him—I knew he had been involved with education, but didn’t know that he had actually run a chain of private schools, and that he’s a poet as well. We don’t necessarily get that much of the back story, but you really confer a lot of presence on him in the film.

DG: If you look at Zia’s story, he was the son of a Muslim cleric, but he was given a tragic flaw: he is a stutterer. The very thing that his father held as important, this idea of speaking passionately, was denied him. Zia felt insufficient—and yet, he found a way of finding his own voice. What’s interesting is that even as a male in that culture, where men are given so much more opportunity, he had his own handicap and struggle.

POV: We see scenes between Zia and Malala, and it does seem that they have an extraordinary relationship. Was that something that you wanted to show in the film—how their dynamic plays out?

DG: Zia has this line in the movie where he says, “We are one soul in two different bodies,” and I think there’s some truth to that. There’s something very bonded, very attached. Child psychiatrists talk about this idea of attachment, and he also uses that word when he talks about seeing her—there’s an attachment.

POV: You obviously had access to Malala—did you have a certain number of days you were allowed to shoot? Were you given time to get to know her and the rest of the family?

DG: We had a lot of time. That’s one of the things that’s so important to me when I make a film—I really want to know that we’re going to have full access. Obviously there were days when the family was busy or Malala had school and it wasn’t convenient, but I filmed on and off for two years. We were with the family in their most intimate moments, and that’s what makes the film so special: the personal side of them intercut with this sweeping political story.

POV: It seemed to me that you wanted to draw Malala out as a teenage girl. You have a moment when you’re questioning her about a cricket player, and you ask if she finds him good-looking. I found that very sweet, but I also thought you were trying to get something personal there.

DG: By that point, I had gotten to know her very well. Malala has an amazing quality as a person—one moment she can sit down and write a speech to give at the UN or the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, and the next, she can get on her laptop and search the Web, and love cricket, and spar with her brothers.

POV: In telling Malala’s story, the most dramatic things—the gradually increasing terror of the Taliban in Malala’s hometown leading up to and including the shooting—all happened in the past. You must have struggled to try to come up with ways of figuring out how to evoke that drama for us, because it obviously has to be in the film. I wonder if you can tell me about that process.

DG: This by far is the hardest story I’ve ever told, partly because I really love them so much that I wanted to get it right, but also because of what you just said—the key event in Malala’s life, or the most dramatic, is the awful moment when a 17-year-old member of the Taliban comes to her school bus and shoots her, and yet, her life now in Birmingham [U.K.] is after that. So there’s a temporal puzzle, and I had to construct the story in a non-linear way, telling about her past leading up to her shooting, and then her present after her recovery. So basically I created these two storylines, and how they intercut was very difficult to construct. My editors—I had three—were instrumental in helping that to work.

The biggest choice I had to make was having animation. That came about less from practicality—although shooting in Pakistan is fraught with both practical and security questions—but mostly because it’s nearly impossible to represent the way she and Zia describe their life in Pakistan, how lush and green and charmed and storybook it was to them. When you look at footage of Swat Valley in Pakistan, it often doesn’t look like that. The footage looks like CNN, very grainy, especially the archival. So I had this instinct that we needed a lot of animation. With the help of Image Nation, who funded the movie, and Walter and Laurie, who backed me up, I said, “Look, we need to invest a huge part of our budget in animation,” and we built an animation company here in Venice in my office, and [brought in] 15 animators. We made a pretty bold creative choice to depict their life in Swat Valley through animation.

POV: I feel that that was an excellent decision. Obviously it was fraught with risk, and it might not have worked—animation has to be nuanced and subtle. I felt from the very beginning of the film, which starts off with animation, that you had done it, that you had caught the proper tone.

DG: You use the right word; it’s tone. You’ve got to get the tone right, and the idea of that storybook tone was really important to me, that it felt not like the town as it is, but like the town as Malala remembers as a girl. Then the other part about it was just practical: the gestation period and process, the way animation is conceived and born, is completely opposite to the way documentaries are created. In documentaries, you gather a lot of footage and you cut, cut and recut; you take things out and put things in, and over a long period of time you start to uncover a story. In animation, it’s the opposite: you have to lock your story down right away, because the drawing, the creation and the technical aspect of actually putting the colour and the shapes together is so painstaking. So you have to make your decisions up front, while in documentaries you make your decisions as you go. We were going back and forth between vérité footage, which is one sort of speed, and animation, which is the opposite.

POV: I see that Jason Carpenter is credited as the main animation supervisor.

DG: Yeah, he was the lead, and we worked very closely together. He brought a great visual style to it. A lot of animation can feel polished but also very cold, and what I was asking for was something that felt hand-drawn—naïve and visceral. Every frame in this movie is hand-drawn on computers, and it has that quality. Jason deserves a lot of credit for that.

POV: What fascinates you about educational activism, which is the subject for Waiting for “Superman,” your early TV doc series The First Year, the TV doc Teach, and is so important in He Named Me Malala?

DG: I get asked this question a lot, about why I’ve done so many projects on it, and I guess it’s because so many teachers inspire me. I had a few teachers that really thought I was special. Even though my grades were bad, they encouraged me. When you’re an underdog and that happens, it has even more effect. The great students took it all for granted, and I don’t think I took anything for granted in school because it was so hard for me.

POV: I’m sure you can’t help but be a bit frustrated that everybody refers to An Inconvenient Truth as “the Al Gore movie.” It’s as if people think that Gore actually directed the film.

DG: When I hear that I think, “Well, I’ve done my job,” because it feels so personal. That’s telling me that it worked. So that doesn’t bother me.

POV: The structure of it is so brilliant, in An Inconvenient Truth —the way you let it unfold, it feels seamless; I can see that you must have worked very hard to make it. It’s almost like an illustrated lecture, but you make it come alive.

DG: Well, thank you. I’m very proud of it. But the truth is, just like Al Gore creating that incredible slideshow, Malala and Zia have built an amazing movement based on tremendous acts of courage, so for me to call this movie my movie would be, I think, egotistical. When I sat down with Malala and Zia, I said, “If this goes the way I hope, we’re going to tell this story together.” So when they call it Al Gore’s movie, that makes me happy, and I hope Malala and her father really feel that this new one is their movie.

POV: You’ve directed a lot of drama. How do you feel that’s helped to inform the documentaries?

DG: It’s been essential. I’ve directed a few movies which haven’t been very successful, and I’ve done a lot of television that I’m very proud of. At the core, it’s all storytelling, but with different kinds of pieces and different techniques. But a lot of the same issues come to bear, like what is the tone of the movie; what is it about; how do you tell the story in a way that is truthful? I think what’s interesting about documentaries, if you look at their evolution over the last 20 years, is that they have become more dramatic and more narrative-driven, and they’ve started to incorporate techniques from television and movies. So it’s been great for me, and making documentaries helps me when I’m directing a television show or movie.

POV: In what way?

DG: In so many ways. I think it’s interesting when you break boundaries of genres. If you shoot a movie documentary-style, it has a certain urgency. When you edit a documentary, you’re much more liberal with what cuts together. With feature films, you get a script supervisor and producers, and they say, “You can’t do this,” and I say, “Of course you can. I’ve done it on a documentary.” You don’t have to be as precious when you’ve done a movie after you’ve done a documentary, because you don’t say, “That’s too hard;” you just pick up a camera and do it. In a documentary, I can just shoot it myself.

So it’s liberating, and the cross-pollination happens a thousand different ways When I do the essential work—at two in the morning—it’s exactly the same. The question is, what is this story about; how do I tell it; what are the essential truths, and how do I get closer to them? That’s true whether you have actors or real people. There are different rules and certainly different techniques that you can and can’t use, but at the core, the task of the filmmaker is very often the same.

POV: What did you do with It Might Get Loud to give it its own special quality?

DG: On the surface, the movie is about the electric guitar, but to me it was really about how these three people became artists. What is it about them that made them great? Did someone just pour magic dust over Jimmy Page’s head when he was born or did he become an artist through a series of events?

The other thing that makes that movie special to me is that it was when I first started intercutting storylines. I had this radical idea to tell the stories of three guys from three different generations by intercutting them. So just when you’re getting to know Jack White, you cut to Jimmy Page, and just when you think you’re understanding Jimmy Page, you cut to The Edge. The narrative of that movie was a very big breakthrough for me and it’s fundamental now to almost everything I do.

With Waiting for “Superman” and He Named Me Malala, there’s some pretty radical intercutting of storylines. It’s the hardest thing to do storytelling-wise, but when you get it right, the story has a compound effect. You’re putting one idea against an opposing one, which causes the audience to be challenged by those ideas. When you have a story that’s just linear about one person, you can get stuck and isolated in that one narrative, and it’s harder to get more complex ideas across.

POV: But in this case with Malala you had the opportunity, because it ends up being so many different storylines.

DG: Yeah. With Malala, it’s her past life before she was shot intercut with her new life after she was shot. So it’s interesting. It Might Get Loud was the first movie where I really experimented with that idea. Maybe I do it too often now because I like it so much. I don’t know.

POV: You’ve had some big successes obviously, and in my experience documentary filmmakers are not a shy group of people. What I like about journalism at its best is that those people can be pretty fearless, and I think that documentarians can be that way too, which makes them interesting to be around. Do you find that?

DG: Especially the ones that are good. I hold documentarians at the highest place in things, because I know how hard it is. The great ones like Errol Morris, Michael Moore, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Brett Morgan—I just saw Montage of Heck and it’s one of the greatest movies, I think, in years. Part of it is what you said, and part of it is that it’s such a great time for documentaries. Hollywood is making some great features—like Birdman, which was one of the greatest movies in decades—but there just aren’t enough of them. Too often, Hollywood movies are really tired and boring, while documentaries are the opposite. The form is exploding right now. It’s exciting, like in the ’70s, when people were making movies that weren’t like anything you’d seen before.

POV: Well maybe it’s time to call documentary features movies too. They do feel a lot like indie films from the ’70s.

DG: That’s so cool; I love hearing that.

TIFF 2015 Screenings:

Saturday, September 12
2:15 PM Ryerson Theatre

Sunday, September 13
The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, 11:30 AM

Saturday, September 19
Scotiabank Theatre, 6:15 PM

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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