Sept. 21, 2015 Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, who gave us “An Inconvenient Truth” about climate change and “Waiting for Superman” (about our public schools) appeared at the Chicago AMC Theater on Monday, September 21st, to speak about his latest documentary on Malala Yousafzai, the teen-aged winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.
Then fifteen years old, Malala was singled out by the Taliban in Pakistan, along with her father, for advocating for the education of girls in the country and the world. The Taliban shooter entered a bus on which Malala and her fellow classmates were riding on October 9th, 2012, called her out by name, and shot her in the left side of her forehead. The attack sparked an outcry from supporters around the world and she was air lifted to Birmingham, England, at the expense of the Pakistani government, where she underwent months in the hospital, recuperating from her injuries.
A crucial nerve that had been cut by the bullet’s trajectory was surgically restored by surgeons at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, re-establishing 90% function (surgeons had hoped for 80%) and a cochlear implant in her left ear attempted unsuccessfully to save Malala’s hearing in her left ear.
Since fleeing Pakistan, the entire Yousafzai family has been unable to return to Pakistan’s Swat Valley and has remained in Birmingham, England where her father Zia and her two brothers and her mother also struggle to assimilate to this new land. The Malala Fund, which has sprung up around her, invests in, advocates for and amplifies the voices of adolescent girls globally, urging education as a way to change the world. As Malala put it: “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.”
Although, originally, Malala was speaking to the world via the BBC, undercover, with a pseudonym (Gul Makal), she eventually stepped from the shadows to speak publicly, saying, “There’s a moment when you have to choose whether to be silent or to stand up.”
The film is part standard documentary, part animated movie, as filmmaker Guggenheim explains that the original Malala was a warrior female not unlike Joan of Arc who led her male troops to victory in a battle that took place in 1880. She was given her first name Malala (meaning “grief-stricken”) after Malalai of Maiwand, a famous Pashtun poetess and warrior woman from southern Afghanistan.
Filmmake Guggenheim used the story of the original Malala as a launching point and a touchstone for his documentary that both traces Malala’s past, documents her present, and speculates on her future. It is quite clear from the film that Malala’s activist outspoken ways come from grooming by her father, Zia, also an outspoken activist for education who owned and ran a string of schools in his native land (and still wishes he did.)
Following the showing of the film, these questions were asked of filmmaker Guggenheim:
Q1) “What made you want to do this film?”
A1) “Maybe it’s because I have 2 daughters of my own, but I received a phone call asking me if I’d consider doing this documentary and it started there. Education is liberation, your ladder up. I hope that message resonates as much with the citizens of Chicago as it does with the citizens of Pakistan.”
Q2) “Does Malala have any anger towards those who shot her?”
A2) “Sometimes you meet people who have a public life and they are different privately. One of the things I find extraordinary is that Malala is the same. She expresses, in the film, that she is not angry about the shooting. She said, ‘It was not a person who shot me; it was an ideology. They were not about faith. They were about power.’ In the ambulance on the way to the hospital, she worried about the mothers of the boys who shot her. Malala’s family is so full of joy and they live their lives without bitterness.”
Q3) “Tell us about the beginning of this remarkable film?”
A3) “Walter Parks and Laurie Mcdonald got the rights to Malala’s story. They called me. I spent 3 or 4 days reading about the story and realized it had many more dimensions. It was about her relationship with her father, which is special. She was actually named after a girl who spoke out (Malala) and was killed for speaking out.
Q4) “Have you spent much time touring with Malala for the film?”
A4) “She Skyped in. She doesn’t like missing school (unlike my children). When she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, she went back to her class to finish her Physics lesson. At Telluride, her family told me that the act of making the movie was a form of therapy. I met them all when she was 5 or 6 months into recovery. She really feels she’s a spokesman for the 66 million girls who are being denied an education.”
Q5) “What sort of misinformation about her exists?”
A5) “Gossip. People in Pakistan refer to it as gossip. A very strong part of the population in Pakistan loves her and wants her to come back home. However, the Taliban has still vowed to kill her. Some of the hatred is backlash against the West.”
Q6) “How did you come up with the idea of the use of animation and illustrations for parts of the documentary?”
A6) “The animation came from problems portraying the Battle of Maiwand, which took place in 1880. Malala is a national folk hero of Afghanistan who rallied local Pashtun fighters against the British troops at the 1880 Battle of Maiwand. She fought alongside Ayub Khan and was responsible for the Afghan victory at the Battle of Maiwand on 27 July 1880, during the Second Anglo-Afghan War. She is also known as “The Afghan Jeanne D’Arc.” We called up Abu Dhabi (which helped finance the film) and asked for more money to animate the movie. The imagery is often scary, repetitive and dark. I wanted to capture that. It was hand-drawn in my office using computers and is like a storybook.”
Q7) “Were there any restrictions placed on you as the filmmaker as to how you could portray Malala?”
A7) “No, but I always show the films I make to people like Al Gore for ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’ There were a few notes given us about how Islam is portrayed. They asked for some clarification in the subtitles. They wanted it to be presented better and their suggestions were improvements.”
Q8) “What is Malala’s favorite subject in school? And will she be going on to college?”
A8) “Physics, which they call Maths. She is going to college and has done very well on her exams. Originally, Malala wanted to be a doctor, but her father’s influence has convinced her that she should become a politician.”
Q9) “How did she keep from being scarred by the shooting?”
A9) “Malala has a big scar running along her neck. Her smile is not 100% returned to normal. Her mother refers to her birthdays as being born again and recently told her Happy Third Birthday. Malala feels a tremendous amount of responsibility for young adolescent girls everywhere and has visited Kenya, Nigeria and, on her 18th birthday, wanted to go to the refugee camps where the Syrian refugees are pouring across the borders into various European countries.”
Q10) “How has film managed to change the national and international conversation?”
A10) “Films that move people can move people to action. It is a very broad message. Malala is speaking at the United Nations next week about re-education for girls. African villages where girls are educated are different and do better in every way, including economically. It starts with theaters like this where people come together, hear an important story, and go home and talk about it. The film will open in 190 countries through Fox/Searchlight, ultimately.”
Q11) (From a woman wearing a burkha): “Do you think any part of your identity caused a challenge to making the documentary?”
A11) “I understand what you are saying. Would she react differently to someone like you? Instead, she got me: a half Episcopalian, half Jewish filmmaker with long hair. This is a true anecdote: when we had been working a while, Malala’s father came to me, touched my hair, and asked if it was real or not. (laughter) I think they thought I was some sort of alien, with my shoulder-length locks. Malala’s situation is interesting because, in our society, everyone is telling their own story all the time on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. They needed help to tell this story. When I walked in, they wanted to tell their story. The first three hours alone with just Malala and a microphone she told her story. Part of my job is to pull people out. I asked her about her suffering, but she did not give a complete answer in the film.”
Q12) “Is there any one thing that occurred during filming that made you change your opinions?”
A12) “I sat around their kitchen table and it was just like mine, but there was so much joy. They are a tight-knit family. We give lip service in our culture to the concept that ‘girls are equal.’ We say it, but her father acted on it, even putting Malala on the chart of the family tree, as we saw in the film. It’s not just saying that people are equal; it’s believing it and acting on it.”
Q13) “How did a young schoolgirl who started blogging anonymously at eleven and was shot at fifteen find the strength to do what she has done?”
A13) “Malala is a tough and focused person. She gets her sense of mission and her passion from her father. She gets her strength from her mother. She sat with Goodluck Jonathan and told him he must do more to get back the girls kidnapped by Boko Harum. She sat with President Obama and quizzed him about drone strikes in her country. Malala will go to college (an earlier question) and her presence has sparked a nationwide and worldwide movement at Malala.org. The Malala Fund is advocating for girls around the world, a nonprofit devoted to working to empower adolescent girls globally through gaining for them a quality secondary education.”