Here at Coup De Main, we’ve been looking forward to the November 5th [NZ] release of Davis Guggenheim’s new documentary, 'He Named Me Malala'. It tells the incredible story of Malala Yousafzai, a teenage girl from Pakistan now famous for her activism in support of women’s education around the world.
Recently at this year's London Film Festival, we met with the documentary’s director to discuss how you go about making a documentary about one of the world’s bravest and most inspiring young women...
“She’s an ordinary girl, from a very small town very far away, but she became famous for doing something extraordinary. She spoke out for what she believed. They were taking away her school. Instead of shrinking, the way so many of us do, she decided to speak out and risk her life for what she believed in. That choice is what makes her great. It’s that choice that can inspire anybody. […] When you meet Malala and you hear her story, you realise girls don’t have to shrink. With the love of her father, and the strength that she gets from her mother, she decides that her voice matters - and when she does, the world listens. That’s a great message for girls everywhere.”
COUP DE MAIN: I was lucky enough to go to the screening of 'He Named Me Malala' this morning. Obviously it’s a documentary, which is what you are famous for. What was it about Malala’s story that made you want to make a documentary, rather than a film?
DAVIS GUGGENHEIM: I have two daughters, and my daughters are a complete mystery to me. I don’t know how to be a good father to them. Rather than make a story about Pakistan, or the Taliban, or anything else, I wanted to make a father-daughter story. I wanted to figure out the mystery between this amazing father and this amazing girl, and why them? Why these ordinary people from a town very [far] away? What did they do that became this extraordinary story.
CDM: You’ve got a lot of animation involved, which is quite unusual for a documentary. Why did you choose to take it down that route?
DAVIS: Malala and her father were telling me these stories about how she got her name; about this battle that took place a hundred years ago. She’s named after a girl who speaks out and is killed for speaking out. That has to be in the movie! But how do I do that? I decided to animate it. We built this small little animation company, and it was nice to have a documentary that incorporated all these different kinds of storytelling devices.
CDM: When you were working with the animators, did that grow quite organically? Were you working really closely with them or was it quite a separate thing?
DAVIS: It’s very interesting, because when you make a movie - when you make a documentary - you make these choices way down the line. You can keep moving things around, but [in] animation you can’t; you have to set your scenes. Animation is the exact opposite to making a documentary. It was very hard to figure out how the animation would intercut with scenes that we shot around her kitchen table - it took a long time to figure out how they worked together. It kind of gives the movie a bigger feeling to it; it’s got more a sweeping score and more emotion to it because of the animation.
CDM: You mention the score there; you worked with people who have scored more films before than documentaries, was it a conscious choice to seek them out?
DAVIS: I just wanted to pick the right people. Thomas Newman, who was just finishing the Bond movie, is such a beautiful composer. He writes music that captures character and personal moments, and I thought, wouldn’t that be great for this movie? To capture the emotion of Malala? To capture the emotion of this family?
CDM: You’ve said before that Malala is a very singular person and her character is very strong and very distinctive - that was why there was no way to find an actress to play her. If you had had to do it, do you know where you would even have started looking?
DAVIS: I couldn’t say. In fact, I wouldn’t do it. I’m prejudiced because I make documentaries, so I think documentaries are better than features, but in this case I don’t think you could. Sometimes, when you see a movie about a famous person that you feel you know, it feels like an injustice to that person. Sometimes it’s okay, but sometimes you say, well, that is not the person that I know. I don’t think anyone could play her - and who better than herself. The movie feels like a big, epic story.
CDM: What do you think is special about this as a documentary? What made this story leap out to you as one that needed telling?
DAVIS: Just the fact that she’s an ordinary girl, from a very small town very far away, but she became famous for doing something extraordinary. She spoke out for what she believed. They were taking away her school. Instead of shrinking, the way so many of us do, she decided to speak out and risk her life for what she believed in. That choice is what makes her great. It’s that choice that can inspire anybody, because if she can do it in Pakistan, I can do it where I live.
CDM: Is that the take home message that you’re looking for? What are you hoping that - particularly young women - will take away from this film?
DAVIS: I have two daughters, and one of my daughters is a teenager - she’s 14. I see her shrink when she’s next to boys sometimes. Even though we say she’s equal, I think there’s these invisible forces that say she’s not equal. When you meet Malala and you hear her story, you realise girls don’t have to shrink. With the love of her father, and the strength that she gets from her mother, she decides that her voice matters - and when she does, the world listens. That’s a great message for girls everywhere.
CDM: Where do you see Malala in 10 years?
DAVIS: I think she can do anything. I think what’s important is that she’s a spokesperson for all these voiceless people who are going through exactly what she’s been through. There are millions of refugees, there are 66 million girls who are out of school, and the fact that there’s a young girl who is speaking out for them is very, very special.
'He Named Me Malala' is out in New Zealand cinemas tomorrow (November 5th)! Click HERE for more info about the film.
Watch a trailer for 'He Named Me Malala' below...