TIFF ’15: Guggenheim’s “Malala” finds the girl behind the icon

Director Davis Guggenheim discusses He Named Me Malala, a detailed portrait of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai looking to empower girls worldwide through education. (Pictured, L-R: Guggenheim with Malala and Ziauddin Yousafzai)
September 14, 2015

When Afghan forces began to falter at the hands of advancing British troops during the 1880 Battle of Maiwand, a young woman named Malalai stood firm. She raised a flag high and marched out onto the battlefield, crying out for the Pashtun fighters to rally and defeat the British brigade. Malalai would be cut down by gunfire, but her words and bravery sparked the troops to rise up and defeat their enemy.

Malalai of Maiwand’s story unfolds in the animated opening sequence of Davis Guggenheim‘s (pictured, left) documentary He Named Me Malala, which profiles Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai (right) – named as such after Malalai. The film enjoyed its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday (September 12).

He Named Me Malala

Malala Yousafzai and her father Ziauddin are Skyped in during the film’s international premiere at TIFF.

“[Malalai of Maiwand] spoke out and was killed for speaking out. Malala spoke out and was almost killed for speaking out,” the Inconvenient Truth director tells realscreen during a press event for the doc on Sunday (September 13). “You can’t write a story like that.”

The historic tale of Malalai is told through stunning hand-drawn animations laid over-top “romantic and lyrical” narration provided by Yousafzai (above, center), who in October 2012 was the target of an unsuccessful assassination attempt by the Taliban for advocating for girls’ education. The bullet would strike the left side of her forehead before traveling into her shoulder. She was only 15 years old.

“The animation was a big challenge, we didn’t know if that was going to work or not. It was a creatively different choice,” Guggenheim reveals. “Those were amazing storytelling moments, but how do you put that in a documentary? Animation became the way to do that.

“The story structure is very complex. It’s the hardest movie I’ve ever had to make, and with many screenings of cuts that just didn’t work I would say, ‘This movie will never work,’ because we intercut between the past and the present,” he said.

The film is a coproduction between Parkes-MacDonald and A Little Room, presented by Fox Searchlight Pictures in association with Image Nation Abu Dhabi and Participant Media. The broadcasting rights to the film were picked up by National Geographic Channel in June, with plans to air the doc across 171 countries in 2016.

Throughout Malala, Guggenheim blends together interviews, archival footage of the family in Pakistan and vivid animation to provide an in-depth portrait into Yousafzai’s life before and after the attack. He spent two years following the teenager on her international mission for educational advocacy, traveling to Massai Mara, Kenya (below) to meet with female students looking to further their studies; Nigeria, where she spoke on behalf of the more than 200 Chibok schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram; and Jordan, to raise her voice for Syrian refugees.

Malala Yousafzai (center) at the Kisaruni Girls School in Massai Mara, Kenya.

Malala Yousafzai (center) at the Kisaruni Girls School in Massai Mara, Kenya.

But what captured the attention of the Academy Award-winning filmmaker was not necessarily the story of Yousafzai’s advocacy campaign, but the intimate relationship between the young girl and her father, Ziauddin (above, right). That relationship, Guggenheim says, prompted him to ask various questions about his own family that weighed on him heavily.

“What was appealing to me was to figure out what happened at the kitchen table of this family. I’m a father of two daughters and a son; I wanted to know what this man and this girl did. I wanted to figure out that relationship,” he explains.

“They believed to the core that speaking out is their duty: it’s part of your responsibility as a citizen and risking your life is just one thing you do to do that. That’s pretty amazing. That’s living with true principles,” he added.

The film’s launch coincides with a global advocacy and fundraising campaign through The Malala Fund, a not-for-profit organization empowering children through quality and safe secondary education while encouraging positive change in their communities.

“[Guggenheim] wanted to deliver this story to the world because we believe it’s not just the story of this one family, there are millions of people suffering from wars and conflicts, and 28 million children are out of school because of conflicts right now, so it’s important that we deliver this story to the world,” Yousafzai said over a Skype call following the premiere. “It’s time we bring the change we want to see. It’s time we make education our top priority and make sure the world sees peace.”

  • He Named Me Malala will enjoy a final screening at Scotiabank Theatre on September 19 at 6:15 p.m. EST in Toronto.
  • Check out the film’s trailer below:

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.