The “He Named Me Malala” Interview
with Kam Williams
Prime Time with Guggenheim!
Philip Davis Guggenheim is an Academy Award-winning director and producer whose work includes Waiting for Superman, It Might Get Loud, and An Inconvenient Truth, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2007. The following year, Davis produced and directed President Barack Obama’s biographical film, A Mother’s Promise, and he also made The Road We’ve Traveled for the Obama 2012 presidential campaign.
In 2013, he directed Teach, a two-hour television special about what’s working in America’s public schools, namely, that at the heart of every great education is great teaching. Besides documentaries, Davis has directed episodes of many television series including Deadwood, NYPD Blue and 24.
He is married to actress Elisabeth Shue who landed an Oscar-nomination for her stellar performance in Leaving Las Vegas. Nevertheless, she might still be best known for her breakout role as Ali in The Karate Kid. The couple have three children: Miles William, 17, Stella Street, 14, and Agnes Charles, 9.
Here, Davis talks about his latest opus, a feature-length documentary about Malala Yousafzai and her father Ziauddin Yousafzai. He worked closely with Malala and her family, filming their life in Birmingham, England, as well as their travels to numerous countries around the world as they talked about the power of education and its ability to transform a young person’s life.
Kam Williams: Hi Davis, thanks for the interview.
Davis Guggenheim: Thank you, Kam. Where are you located?
KW: In Princeton, New Jersey.
DG: My brother-in-law, Andrew Shue, used to live there. Did you ever run into him?
KW: Yeah. It’s a funny story how we met. He was jogging past me one day as I was putting out the garbage. He stopped to ask if I knew anything about the house next-door which had a “For Sale” sign on the lawn. He looked so familiar that I asked him if we’d met before. He said “No,” and that he was new to town. But when I kept insisting that I knew him from somewhere he introduced himself and said he was an actor on Melrose Place.
DG: [Laughs] That’s funny.
KW: Are you related to Eileen Guggenheim-Wilkinson of Princeton who is on the University’s Board of Trustees?
DG: No relation. I’m not related to the rich ones. I’m related to the sock and shoe peddlers.
KW: I noticed that you and I have Brown University in common.
DG: That’s cool. did you like it?
KW: Yeah, I was there in ’75, the year of the black student takeover.
DG: I just went back and didn’t recognize it. Providence was a darker, more gnarly city when I was there in the Eighties.
KW: Well, I was very moved by He Named Me Malala. The movie made me cry as much as I Am Sam and Life Is Beautiful did. and in my review, I called it the best movie of the year so far.
DG: That means a lot to me, Kam. Thank you very much.
KW: I told my readers I’d be interviewing you, so I’ll be mixing their questions in with mine. Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier says: I am Canadian and I have to tell you that I loved Party of Five, especially Neve Campbell. How long did it take to finance, shoot and complete production on He Named Me Malala?
DG: From the first day, until now, it’s been a little more than 2 years. I was shooting and editing for 18 months, which is a really long time for a documentary. This one was the most difficult movie I ever made.
KW: I can understand how, since it involved so much travel. Plus, you worked hard to interweave those animation sequences so seamlessly. But I hope you consider it well worth the effort. I expect the film to get nominated for an Oscar. Patricia also asks: What was the most rewarding aspect of making this film about Malala?
DG: Actually, one of the most rewarding moments came recently when we screened the movie for 6,000 public school girls from a variety of backgrounds and some of the tougher neighborhoods in L.A. I didn’t know whether Latino and African-American girls would respond to a film about a Pakistani girl. It turned out to be very emotional for them. The atmosphere was very charged. And it was a beautiful and gratifying moment for me to see how universal the story is, and how girls feel like this movie was theirs.
KW: I felt like it was mine, too. What would you say is the most surprising thing people will learn about Malala from the movie?
DG: They may have heard that she was shot on a school bus or that she won the Nobel Peace Prize. But those things aren’t what make her extraordinary. What is so moving to me is that she made a choice to speak out and risk her life for something that was so precious to her, her school. She made that courageous choice, and that’s what makes her extraordinary. And her father made a choice to not stop her, and that speaks to me and makes we wonder whether I’d have the courage to do that.
KW: Lastly, Patricia says: I have been a fan of your wife [Elisabeth Shue] since the Eighties. She went to Harvard. You went to Brown. Many young people think it is possible to make it in Hollywood without an education. Please share how your college background helped you become a respected filmmaker?
DG: That’s a very interesting question, Patricia, because my older son is applying to college, and I now find myself considering what college means from the perspective of a father. There are specific skills I brought to filmmaking. I didn’t go to film school, but I believe that more important than attending film school is developing the ability to write, to conceptualize and to express yourself. And, you learn those things in college, and also to develop your voice and your point-of-view. Many people think that you need to master certain technical skills in order to succeed as a filmmaker. It’s my theory that the technical know-how is always shifting and can always be acquired. More important to me is finding people with something meaningful to say who can express themselves.
KW: Alice Hay-Tolo says: In the movie, Malala’s mother did not seem to encourage her daughter in her crusade for rights for young women which was in striking contrast to her father. Is she old-fashioned in her views, uneducated, or simply detached from what her daughter was trying to achieve. Or is there some other explanation?
DG: She’s not at all detached. In fact, she’s very proud of her daughter, and wants Malala to do whatever she wants. Because the mother is a little bit in the background in this movie, people read a lot into it. But it was really more about her choice to be less on camera. In her culture, displaying yourself on camera is considered to be immodest. But I’ve seen her stand up in many gatherings and say how proud she is of her daughter. And Malala’s pushing her mother to learn to read and write English, so they’re very aligned, even though they come from different generations and have different cultural choices. They’re very much in support of each other.
KW: Ilene Proctor says: Malala is obviously a very old soul. How has she managed to maintain her sanity and humility when she’s surrounded by so many people worshipful of her?
DG: [LOL] That’s a great question, Ilene. She is an old soul, and she has this quiet poise about her. At the premiere, all the adults were getting worked up, spinning around, and acting like children, and here’s this teenage girl who has a serenity and calmness about her. I don’t know how she does it. A clue might be found in the birthday card her mother gave her when she turned 18, saying “Happy 3rd Birthday,” the point being that it’s been 3 years since she was shot. I think there’s something very powerful about being given a second chance in life. It enables you to focus on what’s most important. Malala feels like she’s been given a new life and she’s very focused on what really matters.
KW: Sangeetha Subramanian asks: How do you choose what documentaries to make?
DG: Hmm… That’s another good question. I’m very picky, Sangeetha. Perhaps the most important part of a movie is choosing whether to do it or not. A great, compelling story comes along very rarely. I’m always looking for a personal journey and for a story that transcends the specifics of an issue.
KW: Speaking of great stories, I loved your documentary Waiting for Superman, and I was surprised when it wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. I guess it had to do with a political backlash after the picture got pigeonholed.
DG: Awards are very weird. Sometimes you get them when you don’t deserve them, and vice-versa. You never know. I’ve learned not to focus on them. Even reviews can be confusing. My focus is really on getting people to see the movie.
KW: Attorney Bernadette Beekman asks: Are any of the proceeds going to assist Malala’s goal to guarantee girls 12 years of education?
DG: I don’t believe there are going to be profits from the film. But the partners involved, Imagenation Abu Dhabi, Fox Searchlight, Participant Media and I are very focused on Malala’s mission, on helping her build her schools and on getting her message out..
KW: David Roth has a question about your treatment of time in the film. You decided not to treat the sequence of events linearly but rather to group material based on sub-themes around family relations, living in England vs. Swat, the situation in Pakistan, the assassination attempt, etcetera. This approach had you moving back and forth in time. I get that the images of the blood-stained bus and talk of bone fragments in the brain and the assumption she was going to die added dramatic impact to the end of the film. But it also risks diluting the effect of the earlier segments. At long last, my question: What were you hoping to achieve by choosing this approach over a more linear treatment of the material?
DG: A chronological treatment of the movie didn’t seem to have a dramatic shape to it, since you’d have the shooting of Malala in the middle and then you’d devote the balance of the time on her life in England, in Birmingham. To me, movies build toward a moment and, if they’re really good, they build towards a character making a choice. I wanted the movie to build towards her deciding to risk her life and speak out for what she believed, and towards her father’s making the choice to not stop her. I knew that to build the film that way I had to cut time. It made for a very complicated story structure.
KW: Finally, what’s in your wallet?
DG: [Laughs] A lot of credit cards.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Davis, and best of luck with the film.
DG: Hey, it was really a pleasure talking to you, Kam. You made my day.