Sitting down for an interview in the Georgetown Ritz-Carlton, just across the street from the unassuming brick building where his father, Charles Guggenheim, put together his Oscar-winning documentaries, filmmaker Davis Guggenheim reflects on his roots. The 51-year-old D.C. native turned California moviemaker — himself an Oscar winner for “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006) — is back in the town where he grew up to promote his latest documentary, “He Named Me Malala,” about Pakistani education activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.
Guggenheim spent two years filming Malala in Birmingham, England, where her family moved after the teenager was shot in 2012 by a Taliban hitman assigned to silence her for her outspoken advocacy of girls’ education. As the film makes clear, her voice has not been muted since then. In fact, Malala’s celebrity is a bully pulpit, affording her the opportunity to speak out on an array of human rights issues. Two years ago, Malala visited the White House, where she confronted President Obama about drone strikes, saying they fueled terrorism.
We chatted with Guggenheim, who cut his teeth on television dramas, about his unexpected career trajectory and the teenage documentary subject he says he will remember when he’s 70 as one of the most unforgettable individuals he’s ever encountered.
Where did the idea to make a film about Malala come from?
Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald — the producers — originally wanted to do a movie with an actress. They’d gotten the life [story] rights to Malala. But after they met with her and flew back to L.A., they said, “Who would even play that part?” So they called me.
There are many remarkable things about Malala, but the most remarkable of them may be her unremarkableness.
I think it’s important to say that she is an ordinary girl. It’s a dangerous thing when we make people like this into our idols, into icons. Because then we say, “I can’t be that.” But I believe that my daughters can be as brave as Malala.
On the movie poster, it has the quote “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” That’s a pretty notion, but I also feel a little cynical about whether it’s true.
It feels like a slogan. But there’s a story behind it, which never made it into the movie. When Malala was writing her July 2013 United Nations speech, I had just started filming at that point. Her father was saying, “You need to write your speech.” And she had homework; she was busy; she was a teenager; she was 15 at the time. Very late one day she just walked downstairs and showed him a piece of paper. And she wrote that. If a marketing firm had written that, yes. But when this is what a 15-year-old girl is saying at her first public speech after being shot by the Taliban, then it has resonance.
There’s something of a Malala backlash, even among some of her own countrymen. Is your aim to convince people of her virtues?
I was with a cabdriver in Toronto. He’s Pashtun, from her area. He took me to my hotel, and we were talking about the movie. At first he said, “Isn’t she a tool of the CIA?” I go: “Well, I spent time with her when she was helping Syrian refugees. She’s a very spiritual woman.” By the end, he was saying she’s a hero. This is in the course of a 15-minute cab ride, which he wouldn’t let me pay for. If a movie can take you to the place that I’ve been to, and the audience can experience what I’ve experienced, then I feel — success might not be the right word, but I’m satisfied that I did my job.
Some reviews of the film have described it as a tear-jerker.
At Toronto, there was a lot of crying. I wasn’t going for tears, because also there’s a lot of laughter. I think “He Named Me Malala” is the funniest movie I’ve ever made. Which is not saying a lot. The bar is very low.
It’s really weird. It was never a conscious choice, and in may ways it was the least obvious one. I was a terrible student. When I went to Sidwell Friends, there were 100 kids in my class. I was the worst student, by far. But I had a few teachers who, despite all that, believed in me.
How did growing up in Washington, the son of Charles Guggenheim, shape you?
In a big way. I remember being 5, and my dad waking me up. I thought it was the middle of the night, because it was dark outside. He said, “Do you want to come to work with me today?” We got on a plane, and it was Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. There’s the candidate. The film crew’s there, loading film into magazines, and lights and cables. And I said to myself, “This is the most exciting thing.”
Your father made documentaries as well as political commercials. What do you say to those who have compared some of your feature films to infomercials?
Someone said that to me, but that doesn’t seem very fair.
Would you call the short films you made for the Obama presidential campaigns infomercials?
Well, one of them was an infomercial, because the campaign bought TV time. And then I did an accomplishments film for the second campaign, and that is the most infomercial-ly thing I’ve ever done. “An Inconvenient Truth” says that climate change is real. I want to see films with a point of view.
What warts did you leave out?
She doesn’t floss.
I don’t like it when a filmmaker has an agenda and I don’t know it. When the contract is not clear, that’s when there’s a problem. But I grew out of people like Michael Moore, who says: “Screw that. I’m going to speak to what I believe is the truth. And people can make up their own minds.” The audience came to him because he was speaking something that other people weren’t speaking. You might call him a pamphleteer, but he has an opinion, and we know it’s an opinion.
Where will Malala be in 20 years?
I wouldn’t want to predict, but I think she’s capable of anything. The poise she has — I was with her that day when she visited the president and she asked him about drone strikes. I know a lot of journalists who would start to quiver if they asked him that, because it’s one of the tougher questions of his presidency. She called up [Nigerian President] Goodluck Jonathan and said: “Why aren’t you meeting with the families of the kidnapped girls? It’s your responsibility. You’re not doing your job.” Often I’ve met people who are famous, and as you get to know them, they disappoint you. She never disappoints me. She’s the most remarkable person I’ve ever met in my life. The most.
You have been described as a man with a mission.
That sounds like you’re talking about somebody else. One of my mentors, [TV writer and producer] David Milch, says the best way to make God laugh is to tell him your plans. I used to work with my father, and I loved what he did. But after college, I drove to L.A. and said: “I will never make documentaries. I can never be as good as my father. I’m going to be a Hollywood director.” And I was semi-successful. But I got fired from this film called “Training Day,” which I was going to direct with Denzel Washington. I had fought to cast him, and I was the only one who wanted him. He said yes, and the next day he fired me. For years I was an angry, bitter person because it was so unfair what he’d done to me.
And then I bought a little camera and I had this instinct to tell a story of these friends of mine who were teachers, who worked for Teach for America. I was taken by this feeling that I could use my skill for something that inspires me. It’s still not a “mission” yet, but when I come home to my children, and my day was a waste, I feel a little bit heartbroken. With “An Inconvenient Truth,” we caught lightning in a bottle. People weren’t just going to a movie. They were part of a movement. That’s the best feeling in the world. I want to keep doing that until I get fired. Again.
He Named Me Malala (PG-13, 88 minutes). At area theaters.