Bringing ‘He named me Malala’ to the Big Screen

An exceptional odyssey of hope and courage

Acclaimed, Oscar winning documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim brings us a profoundly moving and intimate portrait of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai, who was targeted by the Taliban and severely wounded by a gunshot when returning home on her school bus in Pakistan’s Swat Valley.  The then 15-year-old (she turned 18 this past July) was singled out, along with her father, for advocating for girls’ education, and the attack on her sparked an outcry from supporters around the world. She miraculously survived and is now a leading campaigner for girls’ education globally as co-founder of the Malala Fund.


David Guggenheim and Malala Yousafzai. Photo by Bob Richman

That name was so inspirational to me that I thought that if I had a daughter, I will name her after the Malalai of Maiwand.  There was a real deep passion in my heart when I was naming my daughter after her, that she will have a role.  She will have a life.  She will have a recognition.  She will have an identity, which Malalai of Maiwand had.

~Ziauddin Yousafzai 


Malala Yousafzai is an educational campaigner from Swat Valley, Pakistan, and winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, awarded jointly to her and Kailash Satyarthi for their work in the field of children’s rights. Born in 1997, Malala Yousafzai grew up in the Swat Valley in northern Pakistan. From the age of 10, Malala has campaigned for the rights of girls to receive an education. Using a pseudonym, she wrote a blog for the BBC detailing her life under Taliban rule and her views on promoting education for girls. In October 2012, the then 15-year-old Malala was shot by the Taliban while travelling home from school on the bus. Two of her friends were also injured in the attack. Malala recovered from her injuries and continues her campaign for girls’ rights. She is the Co-Founder of The Malala Fund, a non-profit organization whose work around the world focuses on the rights of girls to quality education. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize, the International Children’s Peace Prize, The Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award and the Sakharov Prize.

To millions, she is a transformative world figure and inspiration.

Among extremists, she has been pursued as a threat and a target.

In Davis Guggenheim’s empowering portrait, He Named Me Malala,  we see the Pakistani-born teenager and youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai as a very real young girl – an alternately brave, compassionate, imperiled and fun-loving teen who simply insists on the right to live and learn…for everyone.

Filmed over 18 intensive months that Guggenheim spent with the entire Yousafzai family in the United Kingdom and on the road in Nigeria, Kenya, Abu Dhabi and Jordon, the film is an intimate chance to get to know Malala, her father Ziauddin, her mother Toor Pekai and brothers Khushal and Atal who helped forge the young woman that she is becoming.  This is the story behind Malala’s culture and enchanted childhood: the story behind a family that said no to tyranny and the unseen aftermath of a shattering event that turned a daring schoolgirl into an educational campaigner known around the world.


Davis Guggenheim

Director-producer Davis Guggenheim is a critically acclaimed, Academy Award-winning director and producer, whose work includes Waiting For “Superman”, It Might Get Loud, And An Inconvenient Truth, featuring former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2007. In 2008, Guggenheim produced and directed President Barack Obama’s biographical Film A MOTHER’S PROMISE, and The Road We’ve Travelled, for Obama’s 2012 campaign. In 2013 Guggenheim directed “Teach,” a two-hour television special about what’s working in America’s public schools — specifically that at the heart of every great education is great teaching. Guggenheim is currently working on a documentary special for HBO featuring the band U2. Guggenheim has also directed many television series including “Deadwood,” “NYPD Blue” and “24.”

For Academy Award winning director Davis Guggenheim getting to know the many diverse facets of Malala only made her story even more intriguing. Though her courage might be uncommon, he saw that Malala’s determination came by way of her parents, cultivating in herself a power we all have – the power of our voice.

“Malala’s is an incredible story of a girl who risked her life to speak out for what is right,” says Guggenheim. “But my first instinct in making this movie was that it is very much about a family, about a father’s love and about a girl who feels empowered to do amazing things.  It would be easy to tell this story in a sensationalistic way. But that’s not what inspires me.  What inspires me is a father who saw in his daughter someone who could do anything and who believed in her.  What inspires me is a mother who said it’s important that our daughter go to school.  What inspires me is a daughter who saw her father speaking out and said ‘I want to do that too.’  The most extraordinary thing about Malala’s story is her family, their relationships and the choices they made in their lives.”

Malala rprior to meeting the DSG SG Meets Photo Opportunity: The Secretary-General and Ms. Malala Yousafzai Special Event: Interactive conversation to mark 500 Days of Action for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Participants: The Secretary-General; The President of the General Assembly 68th session; Malala Yousafzai, Education Advocate and Co-founder of the Malala Fund; Amy Robach, News Anchor with ABC’s Good Morning America.

 “It is a combination of passion:  my passion, the passion of my family and the passion of Davis Guggenheim.  We all wanted to raise the voices of girls. This movie became a great opportunity to tell our story but also to say that education is a basic human right.” Malala Yousafzai

The film unfolds in a melding of emotionally candid interviews, footage from within Pakistan and vivid, hand-drawn animation that brings memories of the past to vibrant life. It takes viewers from the moment Pakistani activist and educator Ziauddin Yousafzai named his daughter Malala, in honor of the legendary Pashtun folk heroine Malalai of Maiwand, to Malala’s bold decision at the age of 11 to blog for the BBC under a pseudonym about life as a girl in a Taliban-led city, to the Taliban’s shocking unsuccessful assassination attempt on a child and Malala’s subsequent battle for her life.

The film focuses most intently on the here and now, on Malala growing up even as she comes to grips with her power as an agent of global change. She is more focused than ever on the most important battles of our time:  empowering girls through education, countering violence and forging new community leaders. And yet she is also just a teenager grappling with her beliefs on boys, homework, siblings, parents and the future …in the midst of an intense media spotlight.

Guggenheim’s films have taken him from political circles to life on the road with U2 — but his keen interest in education clearly is visible in the making of He Named Me Malala.  It had a profound impact on his outlook, an experience he wants to share with audiences. The film releases on November 20 in South Africa.

“After making this movie I’m more hopeful. I got to know a family who has faced so many obstacles, yet their belief in speaking out continues to inspire.  In the course of making this film, I’ve had many people come up to me and ask ‘what is Malala like and how can I do what she does?’  The chance to give people that story motivated me.” David Guggenheim

Only Malala Could Tell Malala’s Story

“My father only gave me the name Malalai. He didn’t make me Malalai. I chose this life.”


 In the beginning, He Named Me Malala was not intended to be a documentary.


Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald

On the contrary, producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, who are known for powerful screen dramas including Gladiator, Catch Me If You Can, The Kite Runner and Flight, envisioned a compelling narrative feature after reading early sample pages of Malala’s autobiography.

“When you come across a true story like this — and suddenly you see real, authentic courage in the face of terrible odds on behalf of this simple universal right to girls’ education – as filmmakers, you can’t help but be very drawn to that,” recalls Parkes.

Adds MacDonald: “There were all these beautiful, mythic elements to Malala’s story, beginning with the reality that she was named for an Afghani Pashtun female warrior and poetess who was killed for speaking out and Malala ended up almost meeting the same fate but miraculously recovered.  Then there were the intriguing elements of her relationship with her family and the setting in the Swat Valley, which is one of the most beautiful places in the world, but went from paradise to hell in a few short years as the Taliban took control.  So we were very moved by what we read.”

Parkes and MacDonald traveled to England to talk in person with Malala and her family.  But as soon as they got to Birmingham, something unexpected happened that changed the whole thrust of the film:  they were enraptured by the spirit of Malala and the chemistry of the Yousafzai family.

“Laurie and I came away from our first meeting feeling that no actor could possibly portray Malala,” recalls Parkes.  “I mean she is just so singular as a human being.  We realized a documentary approach would be a far more powerful way to tell her story and let audiences get to know her.  We also wanted Malala and her family to feel a kind of creative and emotional ownership of her story. So we reversed course, and brought on Davis Guggenheim, a man of tremendous curiosity, a sharp intellect and true humanism.  With his singular gifts as a documentarian and passionate interest in education, we knew he would be the perfect director for the film.”

Guggenheim has become synonymous with documentaries that cross over into the popular culture.  His own father, an Academy Award®-winning documentarian in his own right, had a huge influence on his life.  He sparked rounds of impassioned climate change debate with the Academy Award®-winning and still oft-discussed An Inconvenient Truth.  He followed that with the equally incendiary Waiting For Superman, an emotional tour through the American public education system, which garnered the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. Then he went on tour with U2 in From The Sky Down, which became the first documentary in history to open the Toronto Film Festival.

One thing that has set Guggenheim apart in his career is that he isn’t drawn to exposés or takedowns.  Quite the opposite:  he makes films about themes and people who move him to the core.  “Some people make documentaries about people they don’t like or they even hate.  I make documentaries about people I love,” muses the director.

That being said, Guggenheim is interested in peeling back layers and revealing people he admires as they haven’t been seen before; thus, many people felt they saw a more honest, human side to Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth that had been missing even from his Presidential campaign. This search for what makes people tick was more important than ever in his approach to Malala.

“I think the challenge I feel with well-known subjects is to go deeper than anybody else has – to ask, how do I really reveal this person?” asks Guggenheim.  “I felt had to go in a very personal direction.  It had to really get inside the family’s life and enter their home and be with them in a very close-up kind of way.”

Parkes says that Guggenheim was a perfect match for the task of entering the Yousafzai’s family life in a probing but unobtrusive way.  “Davis’ great power is his curiosity about the world,” observes the producer, “which translates into his being a tremendous listener and a tremendous asker of questions. So what you end up seeing in his interviews is authentically and uniquely of the moment. You feel like you are being thrust into a spontaneous, intimate relationship with Malala and her family.”

MacDonald continues:  “Davis is not just a remarkable filmmaker but a remarkable connector to people.  He is the kind of person you would trust your life with, which allows him I think to go very deep.  We knew he would find a great family story to be told.  Davis also brings a tremendous passion for issues of education, and having daughters himself, he related to this story in such a personal way.”

Parkes and MacDonald brought the project to their long-standing production partners, Abu Dhabi-based Image Nation which immediately embraced and fully funded it.  Participant Media, the company known for pursuing content that inspires social change subsequently joined Image Nation to co-finance the film. The synergy with Image Nation on He Named Me Malala was undeniable.  “We not only have a long-standing relationship with Image Nation, but with the entire region.  We produced The Kite Runner, a film admired for its diverse depiction of Muslim characters, and I subsequently attended the US/Islamic Word Forum, sponsored by the Brookings Institute, for two years as a cultural representative,” Parkes explains.

He continues:  “We felt that given the religious and political sensitivities that we wanted Image Nation to be on board from the outset.  I recall telling our partner Mohamed Al Mubarak about why we wanted to make this film about Malala, and he interrupted me after just a couple of sentences to say, ‘Walter, she’s everything we stand for.’    We were filming her appearance at the UN on her 16th birthday just weeks later.”

For Ziauddin Yousafzai, making the decision to allow a film crew into the heart of his family’s inner circle was not simple, but he believed he had found the right partners.

“I felt as a father that we had just been through a very big trauma in our life and being followed by cameras might be difficult — but we have always done things in our lives for a cause that is bigger than us,” he comments.  “Walter and Laurie motivated our family and then, after meeting Davis and getting to know him, I realized that we will never find anyone better than this man to tell this story about our campaign for global education … David has something special in his personality.  He can bring out the inner truths lying deep in your heart, and that’s what we wanted to share with the world.”

Gaining Trust

For Davis Guggenheim, Malala’s public image was one thing; but he was interested in what lay deep behind the oft-seen shots of her soft smile and clear-eyed gaze.  He wanted the real, honest details of her daily life.  What does she dream about?  How does she keep going?  Has her relationships with her parents changed?  Why does she continue to feel motivated to be a leader given all that she suffers?

To find out all of these things he would have to become part of her world – to not merely interview her but really get inside her thoughts and the family circle that means everything to her.

Guggenheim had no delusions; he was aware that cultural pitfalls could lie ahead. “It was a delicate thing,” the director describes, “to tell a story about a family who have come from a very different culture.  But the most important thing to me was to tell their story in a way that is respectful of and truthful about their experience.  I didn’t ever look at it as me telling their story. I looked at the film as a chance for them to tell their own story. We aimed for deep, intimate conversations – and I hope the result is that the audience feels the Yousafzai family is talking directly to them.”

Guggenheim headed to Birmingham, England, where the Yousafzais have been living since 2012.  It might seem an unlikely place for Malala and her family– this mid-sized industrial city in the geographic heart of England – but she has remained there since being taken to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for further treatment (Her emergency surgery to relieve pressure on her brain happened in Peshawar CMH hospital).

In their new home, Guggenheim found a boisterous, welcoming family atmosphere that set him at ease.  He knew building a solid foundation of trust was key, but there is no magic formula for forging the bond between filmmaker and subject.  Time and patience have to do their thing.

“The kind of trust you need is a trust you have to earn over time,” Guggenheim explains.  “But as we filmed the family in their home just doing everyday things — making breakfast, going to school — and as we filmed them travelling all over the world in moments both private and very public, we became very close.  I grew to really, really love them, all of them, the entire family.”

Ziauddin Yousafzai notes the feeling was mutual as Guggenheim became part of their family life. “He wanted to cover our family with great honesty so we tried to be true to ourselves and to our work. Right away from small things like my stammering to the big questions we faced, everything was put in front of the people,” he notes.  “Yet, Davis was always considerate of our traditions and culture.”

Guggenheim was gratified to be so warmly welcomed into the tight-knit fold.  “Sitting at their kitchen table was sheer joy,” he recalls.  “Everyone’s very candid with each other, they’re always laughing and telling stories. Often we’d end up singing, whether they were Pashtun songs or Bob Dylan.  They’re so alive as people.  They can say some really cutting things to each other — but then they laugh. I used to leave their house just buzzing with excitement, I had so much fun with them.”

As it turned out, their cultural differences never felt much like differences at all. Guggenheim saw their Muslim faith and Pashtunwali (Pashtun code of life), though central to their lives, as driving their generosity, honesty and affection.

“I’m half Jewish, half Episcopalian, so I didn’t know what to expect when I knocked on their door,” Guggenheim confesses.  “But I found a family much like mine. I found that their faith and rich traditions lead them in beautiful ways; it leads them to their willingness to forgive and to their desire to tell the truth, and to their sense of right and wrong. It was no different from the way faith operated in my house.”

For Laurie MacDonald, this inside portrait of a Muslim family breaks open an important conversation in a time of debate over heightened intolerance.  “I think it’s fantastic that this film brings a Muslim family to the screen in a way everyone can relate to,” says MacDonald.  “Their values of kindness and forgiveness are a universal language.”

Malala herself was excited to start filming but she had few reference points for what it would be like.  Since she has arrived in England, Malala has learned to live with cameras following her in public but she knew this film would be something quite different.  “This film delivers the story of a normal family,” she says.

That normalcy is captured in ordinary moments with the Yousafzais. “We laugh, we fight, we talk, we enjoy our time,” says Malala of her family.  “I consider myself lucky to have such a family … this is how children get inspired.  This is how they get motivated to achieve something in their life.”

Her father agrees that the family’s love is paramount. “I think every family is like a tiny state.  It has its own constitution, its own norms and values –and if those values are built on equality, justice, love, respect, every family can be amazing. Our values are why we are so happy,” Ziauddin says.

Guggenheim’s low-key approach helped break down barriers.  “I usually start off doing interviews without a crew, without any lights, just sound,” he explains.  “My first interview was with Malala in her little office where she does her homework, and we just talked for three hours. I did the same with her father; we just sat and talked.  But in the course of our conversations, they both found themselves saying things they’ve never said before.  So that was the important part –helping them tell their full story. I tried not to ask questions so much from an intellectual place as from a human place.”

This set Malala at ease. “It was a very powerful thing that he did.  And it really helped me to speak whatever came to my heart.  Davis has a way of exploring many things which are hidden inside your heart … it just all comes out and you don’t even realize it,” she muses.

Later, she was pleased to have Guggenheim along for her trips to Africa and Jordan.  “It was great to have someone capture these moments, which I want to always remember,” she says.   “During these journeys in the last two years, I have met many amazing girls, so now I feel like when I speak, I’m speaking on their behalf.  And this has empowered my voice and made it stronger.”

At Home With The Yousafzais

In observing the Yousafzai family over a year and a half, Davis Guggenheim came to the conclusion that both parents had an equally indelible influence on the person Malala would become.

“It’s a combination of Ziauddin and Toor Pekai that has created this incredible girl,” the director says.  “Ziauddin obviously has a close relationship with Malala.  He has that wonderful quote:  ‘Don’t ask me what I did.  Ask me what I didn’t do.  I didn’t clip her wings.’ And there’s that special moment when she’s born and he says to her, you’re equal to all the men that are on the family tree.  But I also believe Toor Pekai is where Malala gets her moral strength and her faith.”

“Malala’s relationship with her father is a very special.  But I think she is equal parts her mother,” MacDonald says.  “Toor Pekai is someone who observes cultural traditions and has a tremendous, yet quiet, strength, which I think has a lot to do with who Malala has become.  Toor Pekai is a tremendously moral person.  Perhaps because I’m a mother myself, I relate to Toor Pekai, who I think has raised this remarkable young woman to weather so much and come out of it stronger.”

Malala is also seen bantering with her younger brothers, Khushal and Atal, constant thorns in her side no matter the situation.  Recalls Malala:  “Even when I won the Nobel Peace Prize, the first thing my little brother said was ‘Look, you have got this prize, but it does not mean you can become a bossy sister.’”

Not surprisingly, while he was with her, Guggenheim often found Malala doing homework.  She may be a celebrity but she walks the walk when it comes to education, including her own.  “School is Malala’s top priority and I think she really would love to be top of her class,” observes Guggenheim.  “But of course it’s remarkable what she has accomplished.  Imagine going to school in another country where the third or fourth language you’ve spoken is being taught, where your history classes are not about your own country but about another country’s history.  And she’s doing really well.”

Malala admits she still finds time for fun. “I do sometimes play games on my iPad, like Candy Crush, or sometimes I just read a book or watch TV.  But I always have a lot of work to do for the Malala Fund as well as my homework, so I just have to try to divide it all equally,” she explains.

Like any teen, Malala was a bit tongue-tied by the topics of love and boys, but Guggenheim broached the awkward subjects.  “I have trouble asking my teenage son and daughter if they’re dating.  In fact, I wouldn’t dare do it,” he laughs.  “But with Malala, you have a girl who can stand at the U.N. and speak eloquently in front of world leaders and powerful people, so it’s easy to forget she’s also just a teen trying to fit in. It was important to me to show this other side of her.  Malala has this doubleness to her, which is very endearing. She’s determined to change the world and she thinks at that very high level.  Yet, she can be at home worrying about an exam and laughing with me about Roger Federer.”

Walter Parkes adds: “Any teenage girl is in a minefield of emotions. But for someone who’s just come to a new country and is in Malala’s position, it’s hard to imagine what she’s going through.  What’s so great about Malala and what I think you see in the film is her honesty about those things. She fights with her mom and dad and beats up her brothers.  She presents this wonderful dichotomy of being a world leader on the one hand and just like every teenage girl you’ve ever met on the other.”

For MacDonald these scenes cut to the heart of the film’s power to inspire.  “Despite the fact that she’s now a global leader of great consequence, what is so moving about Malala’s story is that it is also the story of a regular girl. Her heroism grew out of the simplest most basic human right being taken from her – a right to an education – and she discovered her strong voice from that.”

One place Malala would not go was discussing the depth of her physical and emotional suffering.  Though Guggenheim can’t know for sure why she won’t speak about it, he guesses that it is because she has seen so many people suffering in the midst of war and repression – both at home and abroad – that she does not wish to draw attention away from others who have been through even worse.

“You know, a lot of the family’s friends were killed,” Guggenheim points out.  “A lot of their friends are still suffering in Pakistan, so they don’t see themselves as extraordinary.  Still, it’s truly remarkable that they have gone through hell, yet there’s not an ounce of bitterness.  You see it in the movie — they’re full of joy and hope, while many of us complain about much smaller things.”

Parkes also has a theory about why Malala does not speak of her own travails.  “I think her refusal to acknowledge her suffering is tied into her utter focus about what she’s on this earth to do.  I also think Ziauddin’s assessment that the one who pulled the trigger on Malala wasn’t a person but an ideology is really key here. From their point of view, a basic tenet of Islam is forgiveness, and they are walking examples of it.  They channel everything into trying to make the world a better place.”

Still, Guggenheim saw that Malala is still healing from her wounds, a process that may be life-long for her.  “I think she was injured more than we really recognized,” he says.  “We see her speaking at the U.N. and she’s so charismatic, but she had a nerve in her face severed that has been reattached and she’s still getting movement back.  She had bones around her ear that were shattered and her hearing on one side is not very good.  But I never once heard her complain. She truly feels fortunate.”

Malala sees her willingness to forgive as something natural.  “I strongly believe that we should treat others the way we want them to treat us. It’s a very simple thing:  I want to be treated fairly, with justice, with love and friendliness — so that’s my attitude towards other people as well,” she offers.  “I think if I had anger against terrorists or the Taliban, it would not have any good outcome. I believe in patience and I believe in tolerance.  I think that’s the best way of living your life. “

For all his genuine admiration, Guggenheim did not want to skirt the controversies surrounding Malala – from the question of whether a child should have been allowed to put herself at such risk (a question her father, Ziauddin, struggles with poignantly in the film) to the concern of some Pakistanis that Malala is being used as a tool of Western countries (a concern Malala refutes, noting that she has criticized Western foreign policy and the loss of lives from U.S.-led drone strikes in the region.)

“The film had to engage with this controversial question: if you encourage your daughter to stand up at such a young age, have you put her in harm’s way?  It was a question that was asked at the time,” notes MacDonald, “and we had a chance here to look at this question from both sides.”

For Parkes, the choice to risk her life is one only Malala could make, but he is deeply moved that she did so.  “As a father myself, I’ve asked myself if her position as a world leader is usurping her right to just be a teenager? Yet as she says in the movie, she’s chosen this life.  It wasn’t chosen for her.  It wasn’t chosen by her dad.  She chose it for herself because she believed that strongly.”

Recently, Malala had a chance to watch HE NAMED ME MALALA, and she admits she felt a bit awkward, as anyone her age probably would, but she was won over.  “It’s hard to see yourself,” she says with typical candor.  “I don’t ever like watching interviews or seeing my picture, so it was tough to watch.  My father, he doesn’t mind — he watched his and especially my interviews three or four times!  For me it was more difficult.  But I was very impressed with how Davis made the film and especially the animation.”

Animating Malala

Malala animation

There may be no two more opposite forms of filmmaking than documentaries and animation.  Documentarians grab a camera on the fly and shoot real life as it unfolds.  Animators on the other hand work with a slow, painstaking way, line by line, bit by bit to paint an alternate view of reality.

Despite their differences, when these two forms unite it has produced moving audience experiences.  Davis Guggenheim turned to animation in HE NAMED ME MALALA for a distinct storytelling purpose:  to let audiences see Malala’s memories, something that otherwise would have been impossible.

In part, Guggenheim was looking to bust stereotypes. “So often, when we a see a report here about Pakistan, it’s something harsh or scary.  But when Malala and Ziauddin tell the story of their past, it’s something wonderful. The way they spoke, their memories felt like a storybook to me. So I chose to use animation to portray the part of the Yousafzai’s lives before the Taliban in the way they themselves remember it: as something beautiful and charming, like a fairy tale.  Animation means time and money.  But I had the instinct that it could help tell Malala’s story in a very profound and touching way.”

Walter Parkes was surprised when Guggenheim first approached the producers with the idea – then Parkes was won over.  “I remember Davis saying that we’ve been so inundated with news footage of the Taliban and of the chaos in Pakistan that it’s too easy to shut that all off.  And then he said, so I think that we should portray most of her past through animation.  And I said, ‘Are you crazy? This is a documentary,’” laughs Parkes. “But Davis truly had a vision, which is why he’s such an intriguing filmmaker.   The animation Davis and his team put together has created something that’s quite unusual in a documentary:  a subjective feeling that takes us into the past in a more personal way.”


Jason Carpenter

Guggenheim knew he would need a skilled, imaginative collaborator.  He partnered with Jason Carpenter, a young filmmaker who had impressed him with his award-winning student short THE RENTER, which, despite using modern digital techniques, had a rough-hewn, organic look that rendered its story of a boy’s experience at a daycare center as atmospheric and emotional as a painting.

Carpenter, who runs Carpenter Bros. Animation with his brother, says he saw the animation for HE NAMED ME MALALA as a “grand experiment.”  It was unlike any challenge he’d faced before – a challenge that would consume 18 months of focused creative work. “This is a very special kind of animation project because it deals not only with a real person but with a real world leader.  So going in, we felt that the animation had to be very genuine, that it had to be respectful and reflective not only of the people involved but of the culture,” the animator explains.

Most of all, Carpenter wanted the animation to be a kind of looking-glass mirror to the expressiveness of Malala and Ziauddin that Guggenheim captured. “The animation needed to feel authentic, but it also needed to be poetic and impressionistic, so that it could really contrast with the live action and you feel like you’re stepping back into their most precious memories,” Carpenter continues.

Rather than look to traditional animation, Carpenter looked to paintings, including Andrew Wyeth’s moody, textural explorations of memory, nostalgia and longing for what was lost, as inspiration.  He started with research, but once he had the basics, began freely experimenting.  “We looked at the home Malala was born in and at the schools in Swat Valley because we wanted to be genuine.  But we didn’t want to be too fixed or too careful because then it can feel wooden,” Carpenter says.

He goes on:  “It was a matter of capturing the heart and spirit of Malala and her family, of feeding off the passion they have and bringing that kind of emotional life to the animation.  It was also important to me that it feel very much like a young girl’s vision of the world – not a man’s vision – that it have a kind of softness and sweetness to it, and that it felt legitimately like Malala’s perspective.”

Carpenter used digital equipment but aimed for the beautiful imperfections of hand drawings. “We used Wacom tablets, iMacs, Mac Pros and Adobe software – but we were drawing with our hands,” he explains.  “You don’t get splashes of paint on your pants, but it has that same level of craft.”

From the start, Guggenheim loved the imagery Carpenter starting coming up with to match the words of Malala and Ziauddin. “The style of it was simple, very nostalgic, very lush and colorful – but most of all it seemed to come directly out of the way they told their own story,” says the director.

The two worked in tandem – as Guggenheim would show Carpenter footage, Carpenter would refine the animation further.  “If we had made all the animation after the film was shot and just dropped it in, it would be completely different,” he points out.  “But because the animation was responding to the footage as it came in, they really tie together.  They became one, which is very unusual.”

Carpenter’s favorite sequences are the stories of how Ziauddin and Malala each found their voices – in which he animates their speeches as distinctive swirls that drift and carry like the wind.

“We first see Ziauddin being bullied for his stammering, and we needed to find a way to show how his words were failing yet he becomes a great speaker later,” Carpenter recalls.  “Getting that right was important because this story is so much about stepping up and speaking. If you notice, many times before a character speaks, they literally take a step up. When Malala gives a speech on the mountain, she takes a final step up the mountain before she speaks.  When Ziauddin speaks to an audience, he takes a step up.  That’s how we show that part of speaking out is just having the courage to take that step.”

Carpenter continues:  “We also had to find a way to show that a voice is something that can inspire and touch people — that it can change the world. So we tried to visually represent speech in a way that captures the energy, the beauty and the eloquence. If you look closely, you’ll see that we handle Ziauddin and Malala’s speech differently. Since Ziauddin is quite fiery there are actually little flames and things that jump around. But Malala’s speech is more straightforward and it carries a great distance.”

Another thrilling sequence for Carpenter was recreating the Battle of Maiwand, in which Malala’s 19th Century counterpart becomes a heroine.  “I really like the way colors shift in that sequence, and then when Malalai speaks, light reigns down from her voice,” he describes.

For Carpenter, none of it would have been possible without Guggenheim’s support.  “Davis pushes you to do your best work.  But he’s also humble and easy to talk to. The whole thing felt so collaborative.  And I don’t think it could have happened like this any other way.”