The question of what makes someone great is often asked about those people who have achieved incredible things during the course of their lifetime.
When it is asked of a teenager who has not only inspired millions but is also the youngest ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, one can’t help but ponder, what is the nature of Malala Yousafzai’s greatness?
This is what the critically acclaimed director Davis Guggenheim seeks to uncover in his film He Named Me Malala, about the 18-year-old who was shot by the Taliban when she was 15 because she campaigned for girls to be educated.
The Academy Award-winning director, who was in London recently to promote his intimate and tender film, has a warm demeanour when we meet in a sun-soaked room in Soho Hotel. The father of three peers out of the window and declares that he loves Britain’s capital city.
In his latest film, the audience gets a glimpse into the world of the passionate campaigner, who is seen joking with her family, teasing her younger brothers, as well as addressing world leaders on the global stage. Guggenheim says he was intrigued by the strong bond between Malala and her father Ziauaddin and how their relationship has shaped her life.
“I decided to call the movie He Named Me Malala for a reason,” he explains. “Part of me wanted to make that relationship a bit mysterious in the sense that I wanted the audience to figure it out.
“He (Ziauaddin) says in the movie, ‘we’re like one soul in two different bodies’, which is very intense. When she’s in the hospital, he says, ‘we were thinking, what will Malala be thinking? I was a child, you should have stopped me?’
“On the other hand, he names her after a mythical character who speaks out and is killed for that; and Malala speaks out and is almost killed for speaking out. So there’s an almost epic quality to this relationship and he almost makes a choice from the day she’s born that she’s going to have this special life.
“Up until the end of the movie, I wanted the audience to figure out, what is the nature of her greatness? Does it come from him? Does he pull a lot of strings? Even some of the backlash – the criticism in Pakistan – people are saying he wrote the book (her autobiography I Am Malala), ‘she’s just a girl, she doesn’t know anything’. So I wanted the audience to have to figure that out.”
At one point in the film, the teenager asserts, “my father only gave me the name Malala. He didn’t make me Malala.”
The American filmmaker spent 18 months with Malala and her family in their Birmingham home, and on the road with them in Nigeria, Kenya, Abu Dhabi and Jordan.
Guggenheim – who has a 14-year-old as well as a nine-year old daughter, and a 17-year-old son – says he had never spent time with a Pakistani family before meeting the Yousafzais and was curious to find out what they would make of him.
“What must they think of me? I must have been an alien dropping from the sky, but they were very open to me. A couple of days in, Zia said, ‘may I touch your hair?’ He started giggling and he said, ‘it’s real,’” Guggenheim reveals.
Malala and her two friends Shazia Ramzan and Kainat Riaz were shot on October 9, 2012, in their school bus by members of the Taliban in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. A bullet penetrated Malala’s left brow, leaving her fighting for her life and later requiring a titanium plate in her skull.
On her 16th birthday, addressing the United Nations Youth Assembly, she said: “They thought a bullet would silence us, but they failed. Nothing changed in my life except this: Weaknesses, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.”
When she was 12, Malala began writing an anonymous blog for the BBC, revealing what life was like in the Swat Valley under Taliban control. She later spoke out in public, risking her life in a defiant bid not to be silenced.
In a moving moment which is captured in Guggenheim’s documentary, her tearful father embraces Malala as she returns home from school on the day she scoops the Nobel Peace Prize.
The filmmaker says he chose to depict her not as the girl who was shot in her school bus, but as the young woman who continues to risk her life for her beliefs.
“When I would leave home, I would ask myself if I was in that situation, if they were blowing up schools in my neighbourhood, if my friends were speaking out and they were killing my friends, would I speak out or would I let my daughter speak out?” Guggenheim says.
“To me that’s the ultimate question. If my 14-year-old daughter came to me and said, ‘I really want to do this, daddy, this is what I believe in,’ I would like to think I would let her.”
He named Me Malala is out on Friday (6).