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Telling the story of the girl who took on the Taliban

Davis Guggenheim wanted to tell Malala’s story withough making her a victim

Davis Guggenheim’s latest documentary, “He Named Me Malala” opens Friday.
Gina Nemirofsky
Davis Guggenheim’s latest documentary, “He Named Me Malala” opens Friday.

If the Taliban thought they could silence Malala Yousafzai by shooting her in the head, they badly miscalculated.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Davis Guggenheim.

The 15-year-old Pakistani student refused to stop speaking out about the right of girls to be educated, a practice that violated the Taliban’s misogynistic ideology. So in October 2012, they sent a gunman to ambush her as she was returning home from school by bus.

Emergency surgery saved her life, and she keeps as a memento — the piece of skull the doctors removed.

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She was not intimidated. Instead, she persevered.

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Though she had to flee her homeland for refuge in England, her name and her cause became known worldwide. At 17, she became the youngest Nobel laureate in history when she was awarded the Peace Prize in 2014.

The responsibility and honor of telling Malala’s story fell to Davis Guggenheim, director of the Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006), Al Gore’s exposé of the threat of climate change, and “Waiting for Superman” (2010), a controversial critique of the state of education in America. The result, “He Named Me Malala,” opens on Friday.

In Boston recently to promote the movie and participate in a GlobeDocs free screening, Guggenheim talked about how names can foretell one’s destiny, and how destiny can give ordinary people the chance to accomplish extraordinary things.

Q. Your film begins with Malala relating the legend of her namesake, a teenage girl like herself who died speaking out and rallying her people to victory in a battle against the British. Why did you choose to illustrate that legend with animation?

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A. Malala and her father, Ziauddin, were telling me these stories which were so emotional and moving but I had no idea what to do about them. The story about a battle that happened a hundred years ago — am I going to do reenactments with men in pith helmets? So I raised more money and built an animation company in my office. Then I was able to tell that story from the point of view of the young girl who goes to the top of the mountain and speaks out. Her words come alive and save the day.

Q. You also had footage from two years of filming Malala and her family in their home in Birmingham, England. Was it difficult to edit it all together?

A. It was the hardest movie I ever made, partly because I felt like I had to get it right. Also, it’s a complicated storytelling technique. It’s non-linear, intercutting different times and different kinds of footage, including animation. There was a very long time where it wasn’t coming together. My wife [actress Elisabeth Shue] will tell you — there was a six-month period when I was a very unhappy man.

Q. What proved to be the solution?

A. What was most important to me was that though she’s known as the girl who was shot on a school bus, that’s not the reason she’s extraordinary. It’s not a victim story. For me the movie builds toward a choice. Great characters are defined by the choices they make. The choice for her and her father was to speak out and risk their lives for what they believed in. So I wanted everything to build toward that, whether it was shifting between time periods or animation sequences or stock footage or shots of Malala arm wrestling with her brother.

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Q. The title of Malala’s autobiography is “My Name Is Malala.” Why did you change it for the movie?

‘Though she’s known as the girl who was shot on a school bus, that’s not [why] she’s extraordinary.’

A. I don’t want to explain the title because I think watching the movie explains it. It provokes questions that I hope force the audience to answer for themselves. What is the nature of destiny? Is she what she became because her father named her after a girl who’s killed for speaking out? Did she have any choice once he named her Malala?

Q. What did you learn from making the film?

A. I would leave their home after hearing these stories and ask myself, what would I have done? Would I have risked my life? I feel like I wouldn’t have done so before but now I would hope I would have that bravery. But the most hopeful thing I learned is that when you educate a girl, great things happen. . . . It changes the economy. When you have illiterate women, they succumb to Taliban fanatics who preach to them on the radio. But when they are educated, they don’t get married young, they don’t become child brides and teenage mothers. It’s the one thing that all people in the field will tell you: Educating girls works.

Interview was edited and condensed. Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.