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Director Davis Guggenheim reflects on his documentary about girl who survived Taliban attack

When Malala Yousafzai was 11, she was writing an anonymous blog for the BBC about life under the Taliban in the Swat Valley of Northwest Pakistan, as well as about the need for girls’ education.

Her crusade for equal education was soon carried out under her own name in TV and print appearances. Archbishop Desmond Tutu nominated her for an International Children’s Peace Prize.

At 15 – three years to the day of this coming Friday when “He Named Me Malala” opens nationally – a would-be Taliban assassin boarded her school bus, asked for her by name, and shot her in the head three times. She was operated on, survived and went to rehab in Birmingham, England.

At 16, she spoke to the United Nations.

At 17, she was a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest person ever to win the prize.

It is commonplace to see her now as a torch of light in a world where fundamentalist religion seems to be spreading medieval darkness everywhere.

Davis Guggenheim’s film “He Named Me Malala” opens Friday on that harrowing anniversary for all those who want to see and hear more about the woman many view as a symbol of civilization in our time.

Her documentary biographer Guggenheim is a man who, himself, has a rich history. An Oscar-winner for his film “An Inconvenient Truth,” the 51-year-old director also made the controversial documentary “Waiting for Superman” about public education and the 30-minute documentary “The Dream Is Now,” which advocated amnesty for all undocumented immigrants in America.

He directed the film about President Obama that introduced him to Democrats at their 2008 convention. Nevertheless, when an admiring Obama met Guggenheim’s future subject Malala, nothing stopped her from criticizing his use of drones in the Middle East.

Guggenheim, the husband of actress Elisabeth Shue, also made “It Might Get Loud” in 2008 about rock guitarists Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White. His film “From the Sky Down” is about U2. He got his start as an episodic director of David Milch’s landmark HBO series “Deadwood.”

From a telephone conversation with him:

On the idea that Malala is a symbol of civilization in our century.

“She’s amazing. One of the great experiences of my life was to get to know her and her family. She is a wonderful person.”

On whether he took her for granted after a while.

“In this case no. I’ve made movies about famous people and often when you meet people you can’t help but be disappointed. People are human. I think what’s extraordinary about her – and important to know – is that she is an ordinary girl who did an extraordinary thing. Sometimes we build people up and we dissociate … But the truth is she was a very ordinary girl from a very small town. And when things got tough she risked her life for what was important to her. That’s what made her extraordinary. And what that means is that any of us is capable of that.”

On how the film came about.

“I think I read a New York Times piece on her before she was shot. It was called ‘First Day of School.’ I remember the day she was shot and being horrified. And then came the Time magazine cover. And then I was asked (by the film’s producers) to consider making a movie. Originally they wanted to make a feature. And then they met her and said, ‘It can’t be a feature. Who could PLAY her? Let’s make a documentary.’ And they called me and asked ‘Do you want to work on this?’ And I said, ‘Give me a couple days. I just want to read.’ So I spent a long time reading about her and I go ‘Ohhhhh.’ People don’t really get the essence of this story. They think it’s about a girl that was shot, but it’s not. It’s about the power of words. And it goes all the way back to Malala’s grandfather, her father – and even farther back to the girl she was named after (Afghan martyr Malalai of Maiwand) who was this Joan of Arc character who spoke out and was killed for speaking out.

“To be named after a girl who was KILLED for speaking out! It just blows your mind.

“So I said, ‘We have to make this story. The story goes much deeper than anyone could imagine.’ ”

On the difficulties making the film.

“The hardest part was getting them to trust me – which is true of anybody. The truth is they trusted me right away. But that’s the ultimate challenge: Do they trust you? Do you trust them? … Sometimes documentarians go in and there’s an oppositional relationship. ‘I’m going to film as much as I can and you’re going to hide as much as you can.’ I said, ‘Let’s just sit down and talk. No camera crew or anything like that. I’m just going to record the sound.’

“So Malala and I sat down for several hours – the desk you see in the movie with all the post-it notes on it. After three hours, she said, ‘Oh my gosh, I was talking about things I’ve never talked about before.’ I said, ‘That’s because we didn’t have any agenda. “What’s so amazing about her is that she doesn’t live in fear. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. She says, ‘I’ve been given a new life. And this life is a sacred life.’

On starting with Buffalo-raised David Milch on “Deadwood” and the notorious Milch difficulties.

“My father made documentaries. He and David were my greatest teachers. I’ve never worked with anyone like David Milch – the greatest writer I ever worked with. Maybe the greatest (TV) writer of his generation. He DID make it impossible. And it was frustrating. At times he was a nightmare to work with. But the product was so good ... I’m forever changed ... He was the best. Absolutely the best. And also REALLY difficult. And really hard to work with. I love him like a father.”


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