Davis Guggenheim remembers how he first met Malala Yousafsai. It was, he recalls, remarkably mundane.
And then the questions started coming.
“I took a taxi cab to her house in Birmingham and I rang the doorbell and I didn't know who I was gonna meet," said the renowned American director. "I am from Los Angeles, I am half Jewish, half Episcopalian, I've never really known a Muslim family very well, and Malala answered the door.
"I realized they are just like my family, and I thought how did this amazing girl happen? How this father and this girl did something so extraordinary? I made a movie about that. I made a very personal movie,” said Guggenheim.
The result was his September 2014 release, He Named Me Malala, an 87-minute documentary that tries to answer his own questions and probes the life of 18 year old Malala Yousafsai, the Nobel-Prize-winning Pakistani teenager who, in 2012, was shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for her right to an education in Pakistan's Swat Valley.
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The film shows how Malala has since become a symbol not of brutal violence but advocacy for girls’ education throughout the world, her role producing a kind of global resonance that, for Guggenheim, struck a deeply personal chord. Prosperity, gender and social equality around the world, he believes, starts with good schooling, especially in countries where women are second class citizens. That’s why Malala’s story was so important to him to tell.
Starting with her slow, painful recovery from the October 2012 attack, Guggenheim shows how her close-knit ties to here two brothers and parents brought her back from the brink. Malala shares a strong bond with the dad, Ziauddin Yousafzai, a school teacher and an activist himself.
"When she was very small, many friends used to come to our home," we see her father say. "We used to talk about politics, we used to talk about the basic rights and she would sit with us.”
Guggenheim said Malala’s life was almost prescribed from the moment her father, himself an activist, named her after a 19th century Afghan folk heroine. “She was named after Malalai of Maiwand, a girl who spoke out for what she believed. She rallied the Afghan troops to defeat the British. She spoke out and she was killed for speaking out. She was inspired by that girl and she believes that she is on this earth to do something good."
The film also shows that after Malala was shot, her father was devastated not only because the life of his daughter was hanging by a thread, but also because he felt responsible for raising her with ideas that endangered her life. But Malala thinks otherwise.
“My father only gave me the name Malala. He didn’t make me Malala," she said.
So, the film raises the question: What formed Malala into the person she is today? When a British reporter asks her “who would you have been if you were an ordinary girl from the Swat valley?” She replies “I am still an ordinary girl. But if I had an ordinary father, and an ordinary mother and a conservative family, then, I would have two children now.”
Her answer points to gender inequality and lack of opportunities for women in developing countries. Malala, said Guggenheim, is aware of the unutilized talent of girls around the world and is trying to help bring change by advocating for their rights and their education.
“We were in Nigeria when the girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram for a long time and she insisted sitting down with President Goodluck Jonathan, and she said, ‘What are you doing about these girls? It is your job to get them released.’… You know she met President Obama and asked him about drone strikes,” said Guggenheim.
Her fearlessness, and her message, earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.
“She has things to teach the world,” said Guggeneheim, “Not just because she was the girl who was shot in the school bus. Not just because of her advocacy group but because she is a very, very deep soul. She is a very spiritual person, and I think she has a strong voice that speaks to a lot for people who are voiceless.”
Girls around the world treat her like a rock star but she is very down to earth, said Guggenheim.
“Her family went through a lot. She knows what is like to be a refugee. She knows what is like to be removed from your school and your home. So, she identifies very intimately with these girls," he said. "And in fact, on her 18th birthday, instead of being at home with her family celebrating with a birthday cake, she went to Jordan to celebrate her birthday with a girl she had met the year before in a refugee camp.”
Her birthdays since her attack, said Guggenheim, have acquired a special meaning to her and her family.
“I've never met of anyone who is so free of bitterness and anger....she is very grateful to be alive and she doesn't live in fear. She believes she's been given a new life," he said. "In fact, her mother on her birthday said 'this is your third birthday.’”
Guggenheim feels that Malala is not only a symbol to underprivileged kids, but she also is a symbol to people like him in the western world.
“I have two daughters. And even though my daughters' school is safe, I worry about them. And I struggle to be a good father," he said. "I struggle to help make them believe that they can do anything. It is easy to say 'you can do anything.' But do they believe it?
"And I still feel that even here in the west and in the rest of the world society still favors boys. And I want my daughters to feel that they can be Malala. That they can say anything they want, they can stand up for what they believe because I'm drawn to strong women. I think strong women make the world a better place and they equalize things.”