The Making of 'He Named Me Malala'

LOS ANGELES—When a Taliban gunman shot Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in 2012, he nearly killed her, but he didn’t silence her. After a difficult recovery and relocation to Birmingham, England, she continued to speak out on behalf of girls in her homeland and their right to an education.

Documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (“Waiting for Superman,” “An Inconvenient Truth”) started the process that would result in “He Named Me Malala” the following year, when Yousafzai addressed the United Nations. By the time shooting wrapped, she’d received the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.

The documentary brings audiences closer to Yousafzai, the poised, well spoken young woman who has become a persuasive voice for the rights of girls and children everywhere, while also letting the audience spend time with the teenager who teases her brothers and lingers on pages of handsome actors and sports stars while doing homework online.

The film melds emotionally candid interviews, footage from within Pakistan and vivid and hand-drawn animation that brings memories of the past to vibrant life.

From left, director Davis Guggenheim, Malala Yousafzai and Ziauddin Yousafzai (Malala’s father) in Birmingham, England. Photo by Caroline Furneaux
The animations, conceived by Guggenheim and designed by Jason Carpenter, begin with the story of Yousafzai’s namesake, Malalaia of Maiwand, an Afghani female warrior who rallied Pashtun fighters against British invaders during an 1880 battle. The animated vignettes also come in to play to illustrate backstory elements of her family’s pre-shooting life in Pakistan’s Swat Valley.

Guggenheim’s production method on Malala, the same one he’s used on many of his films, was to start out as unobtrusively as possible, interviewing the main characters, Yousafzai and her family, on audio only. This was where he got the tracks for most of the animation voiceover.

“The first time I met her,” said the filmmaker of his initial visit to her Birmingham residence, “I rang the doorbell wondering who was going to answer the door. I’m from L.A. and they’re from Pakistan and you never know whether the cultural divide will just be too great. But immediately they were very... just as you see in the movie—so funny and warm and welcoming and gregarious. It wasn’t hard to capture that in the movie. They are who they are. That’s what’s so endearing.

“Before I knew her,” Guggenheim said, “I was like, what is this teenage girl who spoke to the U.N. on her 16th birthday going to be like? Is this person that mature and fully formed and perfect, or is there also a teenage girl there? I think the movie reveals what I found the answer to be, that she’s both.”

With the audio interviews to help him start to shape his film, Guggenheim then did a series of more than 30 on-camera interviews shot by cinematographer Erich Roland, who has worked on most of Guggenheim’s previous films. Roland shot with a Sony PMW-F55.

Though he’s worked with a variety of cameras, the cinematographer has relied on the F55 since Sony started shipping them. It’s been a “go-to camera for me for a year and a half,” he said. “It’s very good for documentary work: it’s lightweight, it just sips batteries, it’s decent on media. I can put all kinds of lenses on it and shoot 4K if there’s a reason to, though the ‘Malala’ interviews were 2K.”

Roland primarily captures S-Log2, “to give us a little more room in post to push it around,” he said. And he leans toward small Angenieux Optimo lenses for interviews where possible.

Malala Yousafzai, at right, with her brother Atal.

“They’re small and lightweight,” he said, “and it’s very easy for me to change focus while operating. Especially running around in a vérité situation. I hold my thumb and forefinger on the iris, my middle finger on the zoom and my little finger on the focus.”

The filmmakers always maintain a simple lighting plan and this was especially so on this film, for which a lot of overseas travel was required.

“Maybe one big soft light like a Kino Flo and then two others scatter into background, maybe on shoulders. It’s very rare that we’d use more than three lights and some bounce board. In a vérité situation, I might just use a small battery-powered LED light. Davis loves to capture things in cars in just about every project we’ve done. When there’s something in a car, a small light for some fill works well.”

Guggenheim prefers to shoot with a single camera, although he now also carries a small DSLR or mirrorless still/video camera to shoot stills and grab the occasional extra angle to cut to in video.

From left, Ziauddin and Malala Yousafzai and Syrian refugee Rimah in Syrian refugee tent camp in Jordan. In his films, the director has spoken with a lot of very polished and experienced career spokespeople. Asked if his approach differs when interviewing people with significantly less camera experience, he said, “I would say that with people who are very polished and conscious of their message, it takes longer to get closer to who they really are. Malala and her father had been speaking out in Pakistan for many years. They are sophisticated to the point where Malala is writing her own speeches. They are conscious of the message. But they were unlike a lot of other people I’ve worked with who are famous opinion makers and much harder to access. I don’t think that was an issue with them.”

In an effort to consolodate the ambitious post process, the documentarian brought all the editing and animation into his Venice, Calif., company, The Little Room. There, he had Avid ISIS allowing him to share media with the various editors, primarily Greg Sinton and Brad Fuller and teams of assistants, while Carpenter and his team of animators spent time in Adobe Character Animator on Wacom tablets, constantly updating the designs and then animations.

“Typically on a job there are five or six of us,” Guggenheim said. “On ‘Malala,’ there were more than 20 people. It was almost like a studio production.”

The animated portions, the filmmaker notes, started to fill in gaps, not just in Yousafzai’s story but also in presenting her and her family’s view of their homeland.

“I was initially imagining the movie in my head, presenting the world the way I’d thought it was from the news media: grainy images on CNN, desperate, grim, scary. But [the family’s] version of the Swat Valley is of a beautiful place, almost like something in a storybook, and I felt there must be a way to capture this.”
The concept of bringing the animation in-house offered the opportunity to more seamlessly integrate those sections with the rest of the film, built out of interviews and archival material.

“In the past, you’d hire an animation company and they’d have sales reps and managers and that’s often very frustrating,” he said. “I wanted to do what I do in my office, which is to roll up our sleeves, look at something, talk about it, tear it up and start again.

Director Davis Guggenheimi and DP Erich Roland at the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan. Photo by Gina Nemirofsky “But it’s also odd because the gestation process of editing documentaries is the exact opposite of the process of animation,” he said. “In animation, it’s expensive and so time-consuming [that] you really have to make your choices at the beginning. Whereas I’m just cutting scenes and recutting scenes for a year and a half. And that doesn’t work with animation. So we were building scenes and fine-cutting scenes for animation very early while we were being very loose and rough with the vérité part.”

“He studied animation in documentaries intensely,” said editor Sinton. “We found that if you try to animate faces and dialogue, it takes you out of the movie immediately. ‘We just saw the real person and now we’re seeing this animated character!’ So instead [those sequences were] more epic and [wide] and mythic, and that worked much better because it had its own style.”

“We would have cuts [of the film] working off very rough storyboards and animatics [for those portions],” Guggenheim said. “We had a storyboard artist down the hall drawing, putting it in the system so the editors could see [it develop]. You couldn’t count the iterations. It was hundreds of them. Back and forth for a year and a half.”

The idea of manipulation is never far from Guggenheim’s mind as he oversees the editing of one of his documentaries. Obviously, the act of selecting and ordering scenes and shots and moments will always impose some kind of narrative construct on top of “pure objective truth,” but how much is necessary to be honest and how much is pushing it too far? The differences can be razor thin.

Malala Yousafzai “It’s really a key question for any filmmaker on any film,” he said. “You can turn up the music or linger on a shot. There’s a thousand ways you can affect the audience’s response to something. My only answer to that question is that for this story, this story in particular, there was no need. The drama of what was happening to Malala and her family was real. I always let the [subjects]—Malala and her father and the rest—tell me what was scary and what was real and I follow that,” Guggenheim said.

This concern extends to the color grading process, a task Guggenheim routinely takes to Company 3, Santa Monica. As with every facet of his productions, his concern is to present the material in a powerful way without imposing an inorganic feeling or concept on top of it.

“Documentaries can be seen purely as journalism,” he said, “without an understanding of the craft you need. The contribution of someone like Stefan Sonnenfeld is immense.

“The work he does for J. J. Abrams or Michael Bay can be more impressionistic,” he said, comparing to what he’s looking for in a film like “Malala.”

“He can have a significant impact in how the audience experiences a scene. In documentaries, you also make choices all the time. How do you light someone? Where do you cut? How much music do you put in? You want those choices to help express the truth you’re trying to convey and not overpower it. The same is true for the color.

“My bigger comment on the subject in general,” he said, “is if you go too far, the audience rejects it. As a filmmaker, you have to have a good ear for when you’re tweaking the drama further than it can go because I think that turns off the audience. At least it turns me off.”