Davis Guggenheim on faith and the voiceless in his film, HE NAMED ME MALALA

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Davis Guggenheim has directed some of the most impactful documentaries that have ever been made. His 2007 film An Inconvenient Truth won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Waiting For Superman brought change to the conversation around the education system United States and It Might Get Loud became an instant classic for music lovers. I talked to Davis about his new film He Named Me Malala this week. Here are a few highlights from our time together.

JB: The film does a great job at humanizing Malala. How did you go about balancing the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and the teenage girl?

DG: She is that person. It wasn’t hard. It was surprising, how easily she moved between the two worlds. It’s important to know that about her.

JB: Malala is an unlikely protagonist for a story in one sense. But I think her story and her courage and even her faith will appeal to a broad audience across barriers. Is that your hope?

DG: I believe in religious tolerance. My mother is Episcopalian and my father is Jewish. I remember sitting behind the couch watching them fight about how to raise us and that impacted me. I didn’t intend to make a movie about religious tolerance but the family’s faith became a big part of the film. Their lack of bitterness and revenge demonstrated their faith beautifully. Forgiveness is a big part of who they are. Forgiveness is seen in this family, not just talked about. That lack of bitterness is really beautiful.

JB: Her family provides some comic relief and layers of depth to the story. Was that a happy accident?

DG: I didn’t know what I was going to find when I left the airport in England. They opened the door and there was this house full of joy. Bridging cultures is so fundamental. But in this new world, cultures are divided in new ways. We have new ideological silos. Malala’s family just naturally broke those down so organically.

Malala’s mother is very quiet in the movie. Being on camera can be seen as very immodest. But I felt her mother’s power from the moment I walked in the house. Malala’s religious strength comes from her mother. Her mother cried for the mothers of the boys that shot her when they were rushing her to the hospital. Her mother always is giving food to the poor and takes care of people. She gets her activism from her father but she gets her spiritual strength from her mother.

I start my movies in a different way than most directors. I sat down with Malala for 3 hours and just asked her questions. I was immediately transfixed. This idea was metaphysical that she was named for a girl who spoke out. It’s almost this Biblical theme like Paradise Lost. It’s the snake that came into the garden. This idea that a child will lead us. I knew this story was rich pretty early on.

JB: What made this story different than projects you have done before?

DG: Just how personal it hit me. It challenged me, how I think about the world, religion, about faith. Initially, I would handle their religion with kid gloves. But their faith was very simple. And they were very open. It has this healing feeling to it. After spending time with Malala and her family, I left asking myself, “Have I done everything to treat my daughters as fairly as my son?”

My dream from the very first day I worked on this was for girls to bring their parents to this movie and say, “This is mine.” That’s why the movie is told through Malala’s voice. It’s all told through her point of view. The film gives a voice for those who haven’t had one for a long time.

He Named Me Malala opens in theaters on October 2, 2015.

For more info visit, henamedmemalala.com or malala.org

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