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Girl Power vs. the Taliban: The Miraculous Story of an Ordinary Teenager from Pakistan

By Addie Morfoot

Malala Yousafzai in Davis Guggenheim's 'He Named Me Malala.' Photo by Gina Nemirofsky. © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Editor’s Note: On October 21 at the Linwood Dunn Theater in Los Angeles, IDA will present Davis Guggenheim in conversation with Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. The two will explore his wide-ranging body of work that includes culturally significant and brilliantly crafted films. Learn more and purchase tickets.

Hollywood almost got its hands on Malala Yousafzai.

The Pakistani teenager's story has just the right ingredients for a studio venture: resilient and resourceful child, struggle, political violence, activism and an uplifting ending. But luckily, producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, who have a production partnership with Image Nation Abu Dhabi, secured the rights to Yousafzai's book, I Am Malala, and realized the world's most influential teenager didn't need any re-inventing.

Why not? Well, the then-15-year-old's story reads like a best-selling novel. While returning home on her school bus in Pakistan's Swat Valley, Malala, an outspoken advocate of girl's education rights in her country, was shot in the head point-blank by members of the Taliban. The attack sparked an outcry from supporters around the world. Malala made a miraculous recovery. Then, along with her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai (Zia), she did the unimaginable: She moved on with her life without hatred and began advocating worldwide for female education.

But it wasn't until Parkes and MacDonald—the producing duo behind such hits as The Kite Runner, Gladiator and Men in Black—met the teenage global powerhouse that they realized that truth is not only stranger than fiction, but it is sometimes more appealing.

"We initially thought about doing a regional theatrical film; we had some experience with this sort of thing with The Kite Runner," says Parkes. "However, after we flew to Birmingham, England, to meet with Malala and Zia, we were both troubled by the idea of making a narrative. Theatrical features require fictionalization, and the subjects always have to give up a lot of control over their depiction. Beyond that, after meeting Malala, it struck us that there was no young actress on the planet who could authentically capture what is so singular about her."

Enter Davis Guggenheim. The Oscar-winning director's talent, combined with his commitment to education, convinced Parkes and MacDonald that they could trust Malala's remarkable story in his hands. Just weeks later, Guggenheim was at the United Nations in Manhattan filming her first public appearance since being shot.

Davis Guggenheim and Malala Yousafzai on the set of 'He Named Me Malala.' Courtesy of Bob Richman © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Cut to two years later. He Named Me Malala opens in theaters nationwide October 2, through Fox Searchlight. But even with masterminds like Guggenheim, Parkes and MacDonald behind the film, topics such as the Taliban, gun violence, gender inequality and elimination of female education don't typically attract movie-going audiences. Traditionally, social issue documentaries find the majority of their viewers via television networks. (The film also will air in 2016 on National Geographic Channels in 171 countries and 45 languages.)

But Malala is not your typical social-issue protagonist. She exists in a complex reality, which Guggenheim deftly illuminates. But instead of making her a one-note Mother Teresa-type—the inspirational Nobel Peace Prize Laureate on a remarkable and noble quest—Guggenheim avoids canonizing the 15-year-old.

"It immediately struck me that there are just two sides to Malala," Guggenheim explains. "She has the poise of a visionary leader who can write a speech and deliver it to the UN. And she can also be a girl who looks at cricket matches on TV, and who can be silly and play with her brothers. I found that fascinating."

In other words, this protagonist fighting for female education worldwide is first and foremost a young woman who loves her parents, likes boys, worries about fitting in at school and makes fun of her brothers.

In order to discover and eventually capture that side of Malala, Guggenheim had to gain his subject's trust. "Every documentarian knows that getting all who are in your movie to trust you takes time," he explains. "Getting subjects to be open, getting them to be themselves, and getting them not to edit themselves is fundamental."

To establish that kind of trust with Malala and her father, Guggenheim did what he attempts to do in all of his documentaries. "I didn't bring the crew on the first initial interview with Malala," he says. "I just took a sound person and I interviewed her with a single microphone in a little workspace in her home. The sound guy was in the hall, out of the room, and we just had a three-hour conversation. The purpose of it was to get to know each other and to explore. I didn't have a list of notes or questions. I didn't have an agenda. She didn't have to sit a certain way. We didn't have people setting lights or telling her to sit up. It was just she and I talking, and that set the foundation for how we were going to interact."

Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

The technique, Guggenheim says, set the introspective and thoughtful tone of his relationship with Malala and Zia as seen in the film. "After those initial interviews, Malala and Zia said, 'Wow! That was different.' Immediately they understood that we were telling their story together. This idea that I want us to tell the story together is at the heart of all of my projects."

Those audio interviews also proved essential in the edit. Various themes emerged, as did the film's revealing opening animated sequence. "I struggled with this idea of tone, which is that, when you look at footage of Pakistan that we typically see, it's so loaded," Guggenheim says. "There's this grainy footage and it's scary. But the way Malala and Zia were telling me stories of their early life in the Pakistan's Swat Valley, it seemed like a storybook. I thought, 'Maybe there's another way of doing this.' So I asked Walter and Laurie if there was any way we could add to the budget and do hand-drawn animation from the point of view of a girl? And everyone got very excited. But it was a bit of a creative leap—and it was a big financial risk."

In addition to using animation, Guggenheim relied on various themes to get to the heart of the teenager's true story. One major theme that the director uncovered was just how important Zia is to Malala's story. "I definitely came home from those first interviews with her and I went, 'Oh. This is a father-daughter story."

The director shared his visions with the producers. "Davis, Laurie and I had many conceptual conversations up front, during which times certain fundamental themes were identified," Parkes says. "One of them was the central importance of the 'voice.' Another was to focus on her and Zia's relationship, and the question of whether or not he in some ways unduly influenced her to become the activist she is. Another was a commitment to present Islam and a Muslim family in a way very different—and more truthful—than has been generally been the case in Hollywood."

But incorporating the story's various themes and getting the story correct meant a story told non-linearly. "This was the absolute hardest story structure I've ever attempted," Guggenheim admits. "It intercuts from two different times in Malala's life—before she was shot and after she was shot. So I had the big picture or the non-linear intercutting of time. What I didn't know was how I would execute it. Editors Brad Fuller and Greg Finton deserve a lot of credit for having to figure out the many different cuts. Trial and error doesn't quite cut it; it was trial and ten errors for every success."

The 87-minute film is a feat that may or may not become a narrative film. Either way, Guggenheim is just glad that he got a chance to spend time with Malala and her family. "I would leave their home sort of buzzing," the director says. "There's so much laughter. There's so much joy in their home. Malala was injured and she still has injuries. They had to up and leave their home that they loved. They have every right to be bitter, but they aren't. So it was a pretty special experience to be with them and to come home and tell my children about them."


Addie Morfoot is a freelance reporter who writes frequently for the entertainment media. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Marie Claire, Variety and The Wall Street Journal. She’s currently completing her first novel.