- The Washington Times - Friday, October 9, 2015

It’s hard enough to imagine a teenager forgiving a playground bully, but to absolve someone who shot you in the head requires a level of grace that is almost superhuman.

But that is precisely what Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, a teenage activist from Pakistan, did after a Taliban-affiliated gunman shot her and three of her friends aboard a school bus in the country’s Swat valley in 2012.

At the time, she was only 15.

“The danger of film is that sometimes you make someone into this larger-than-life character, but you realize that she was an ordinary girl who was not extraordinary, but she did an extraordinary thing,” said Davis Guggenheim, director of the documentary “He Named Me Malala,” which opens in the District Friday.

Ms. Yousfazi came to international attention following the attempt on her life and subsequent recuperation, but her speaking out for the importance of educating girls in a culture that often treats females as significantly less than males got her on the deadly radar of the Taliban.

Despite her risktaking and being shot, what most struck Mr. Guggenheim was his subject’s incredible humility.

“She was just an ordinary girl … in a safe part of Pakistan. Then they started to take away something that was very precious to her: her school,” he said. “And she made a choice to speak out and risk her life … for what [she] believed. That’s amazing.”

Mr. Guggenheim spent several months with Ms. Yousafzai, now 18, conversing with her on camera at her family’s home in Birmingham, England, where they have lived since escaping further threats from religious authorities in Pakistan. His camera follows her around the world as she accepts humanitarian awards, promotes her autobiography, effectively silences a stunned and humbled Jon Stewart, converses with world leaders and inspires some of the world’s most underprivileged children.

Mr. Guggenheim said the initial notion to tell Ms. Yousafzai’s story was as a dramatization, but he and his producers quickly realized that allowing the incredible young woman to tell her story in her own words was far greater than any acting accomplishment might prove.

The title “He Named Me Malala” implies equal importance not only for its young subject but also her father, Ziauddin, who, in a rather brash break from cultural traditions, added his daughter’s name to the family tree — heretofore solely the purview of men.

“He’s radical,” Mr. Guggenheim sums up without equivocation. “In this very patriarchal society, he took the family tree, which goes back 300 years, full of only men’s names and — I think what would be seen by some as an insult — took a pen and drew a woman’s name on it; he drew ‘Malala.’ That in itself is a choice to say, ‘I’m going to take action to say that my newborn baby is going to live a life of equality.’”

Mr. Guggenheim applies the unusual element of occasional animations during the film in between conversations with Ms. Yousafzai. It’s a somewhat odd artistic move that, during a key scene, allows the viewer to experience a historical tale whose protagonist’s name Mr. Yousafzai decided to bestow upon his newborn daughter. Mr. Guggenheim said this allowed both a convenient narrative device as well as a way to perhaps offset some stereotypes of people from the Yousafzais’ part of the world.

“The imagery we get here in the West [of Muslims] is very repetitive and from a very narrow, twisted lens, which is scary images,” Mr. Guggenheim explained. “And I think the way [the Yousafzai family talks] about their time in Pakistan was very romantic. I thought it would be a disservice if I didn’t capture that.”

The key opening scene portrays the Battle of Maiwand, and its central hero, whose name was lent to the film’s subject, through the same animation device.

“Instead of doing the battle the way I would [as] a 51-year-old man, I would draw it or portray the way a young girl would imagine it,” Mr. Guggenheim said. “Like how would she imagine this character? A lot of the impression and the tone came from [Ms. Yousafzai].”

Mr. Guggenheim, who has three children — including two daughters — with actress Elizabeth Shue, said the father-daughter relationship of his subjects was a major attraction to him about the Yousafzai family’s story.

“I wanted to know, what was it between this father and this daughter that created such an amazing, inspirational moment,” he said. “How did he build a world around her where she could feel so confident?”

Mr. Guggenheim has tackled such existential questions before in work. His 2010 doc “Waiting for Superman” examined the ongoing difficulties plaguing American education — especially in the District of Columbia. But it was for 2006’s “An Inconvenient Truth” that Mr. Guggenheim courted the most controversy. The film followed former Vice President Al Gore as he lectured and lobbied on behalf of efforts to combat climate change.

While Mr. Guggenheim won an Oscar for the film, backlash by climate change deniers dogged his glory. However, he does believe that, nearly a decade later, things have begun to turn.

“I think the majority of people get that climate change is real; even conservatives are saying it’s real,” Mr. Guggenheim, who still maintains contact with Mr. Gore, said. “The hardest step is an existential step, which is why aren’t we urgently fighting to stop this? I also think, even more disturbing, is the human instinct, that I share, which is that it’s much too big, it’s too impossible, it’s a problem I can’t see and therefore I can’t solve.

“Not just conservatives, but I think all of us have to fundamentally change the way we live our lives.”

Whether it be learning more about climate change or increasing the status of women around the world, the key, Mr. Guggenheim says, is education.

“When you see [Ms. Yousafzai‘s] story, you realize that education really is liberation,” he said of his current film subject. “You realize that when you don’t educate pope, it really limits their life and it limits their choices. And when you do educate someone, it gives them ladders to success. That’s the [bridge] from ‘Waiting for Superman’ to [‘He Named Me Malala‘].”

Of particular poignancy is that, while Ms. Yousafzai has conversed with President Obama and won the Nobel Peace Prize, she remains, in many ways, a typical teenager. In the film she is seen giggling delightfully at Internet photos of male soccer players and even becoming embarrassed when Mr. Guggenheim inquires if she would ever talk to a boy of her own accord.

“She said she doesn’t get nervous when she sits down with world leaders, she gets nervous when she talks to kids, because kids ask really difficult questions,” Mr. Guggenheim said, adding that his own daughters are tremendous fans of Ms. Yousafzai. “She said kids ask really fundamental questions, like why would someone with a gun come and want to shoot you? Or why is there so much suffering in the world? And my kids ask those question. And when you’re a parent, or Malala, those are hard questions to answer. She speaks for kids and she doesn’t know how to answer that question. I think that was very honest.”

If anything, Mr. Guggenheim is proud that his film showcases not only Ms. Yousafzai’s intelligence and character, but also her tremendous courage.

“She made a choice to risk her life, her father made a choice to risk his life, for what they believed,” he said. “I think in life, we’re all defined by our choices. What happens when push comes to shove and we’re asked to do the right thing? To me that’s what’s extraordinary about her — not that she was shot on a school bus but that, as a young girl, she raised her voice and spoke out. That’s amazing.”

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