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A version of this story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
At first blush, filmmaker Davis Guggenheim’s documentary portrait of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai is a film about education and the struggle for women’s rights in a violently traditional, patriarchal culture. But as the film’s title — He Named Me Malala — suggests, it is at its root a kind of meditation on fathers and daughters.
Malala, whose father, Zia, named her for a legendary Afghan “Joan of Arc” heroine, was the target of a Taliban terrorist attack and sustained a near-fatal head wound while riding a school bus in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. Both Malala, then 15, and her father had been singled out by fundamentalists because of their support for women’s education. Her life- saving surgery and recovery in Britain attracted worldwide attention, and she subsequently has become a leading global advocate for women’s educational opportunity.
Guggenheim, who is married to actress Elisabeth Shue and whose films include An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman, tells THR that he made this film “because I have two daughters. They are often a mystery to me. Even here in L.A., I worry about their sense of confidence.” While Malala is a global hero and arguably the film’s “star,” Guggenheim feels a kinship with Zia that he hopes audiences will share. “Some people have been very critical of Malala’s father, and yet she would never be who she is without him,” says Guggenheim. “They live in a very patriarchal society. A lot of fathers would not want their daughter to go to school. He was really unique in this. He had a vision for his daughter. That’s pretty extraordinary.”
The filmmaker says that he was impressed by the reaction of Los Angeles students for whom Malala was screened earlier this year. “The really exciting thing is that girls feel like it’s their story,” he says. “I think that because she came very close to dying, she has this sense of purpose about her that I’ve never experienced in most adults and very few teenagers, where the small things kind of fall away. She says, ‘I’ve been given a new life, and it’s a sacred life.’ You feel that is true for her.”
Guggenheim said Malala and her family remain hopeful that someday they’ll be able to return home to the Swat Valley.
“They talk about it everyday,” Guggenheim said. “It’s mostly her friends who are saying, ‘please don’t go back. It’s too dangerous.’ The forces against it are very strong, but the fact that you have a symbol like Malala, who has proven that when you educate a girl, you can transform her life. You cannot take that away. You give her the power to transform the world.”
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