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Malala director explains how Nobel winner's name pointed her towards greatness

Davis Guggenheim documentary showcases the activist in a new light

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Davis Guggenheim asked his producers for three days to research Malala Yousafzai before he agreed to direct a documentary about the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He knew the story of her education activism on behalf of young girls both in her Pakistani homeland and elsewhere was inspiring and the fact that she almost died for her cause was monumental. But what he found in those brief days of research pointed to an even richer story that until then had remained hidden.

“Suddenly all these rich themes came forward,” says Guggenheim in an interview with EW Radio. “This was a father/daughter story, this was about a family with a rich tradition of speaking out. This was about a girl named after a mythical character.” That naming really stuck with Guggenheim, so much so that he named his film now playing in theaters nationwide He Named Me Malala, rather than I Am Malala, the title of Yousafzai’s memoir.

“I chose the title to provoke the audience to ask a question,” he says. “Why is her naming so important and what is the nature of her greatness? Is it the design of a father’s dream or is it something else?”

Guggenheim’s film not only chronicles the harrowing story of Yousafzai and where her activism has taken her today but also showcases a family committed to something greater than themselves. The documentary also gives a clear picture of an 18-year old girl who is at once an adolescent and the leader of a cause. 

“When you meet her, and everyone talks about this, she has this poise about her. It’s like how people talk about meeting the Dali Lama. There is this quiet power, and a very clear voice,” says Guggenheim. “And then ten minutes later she’s a girl on her computer looking at pictures of Brad Pitt and Roger Federer and teasing her brothers. She has this double life. And it’s not a struggle between these two characters. She just is both.” 

Guggenheim joined EW at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about his film, and specifically where Malala gets her name.