I first met the documentarian Davis Guggenheim in 2006, when I was working on the first national magazine piece on the movie that would win him an Academy Award and bring Al Gore back from the wilderness: An Inconvenient Truth.
Four years later, Guggenheim and I met again, in the run-up to the release of his Waiting for Superman. One product of that reacquaitance was another piece; another was a friendship between us.
Like his father, the legendary film director and producer Charles Guggenheim, Davis was possessed of an eclectic set of interests. His work has ranged from political propaganda (he directed both of Barack Obama’s Democratic convention films) to the reinvention of the Western (he worked alongside David Milch in the creation of Deadwood) to several upscale rockumentaries (It Might Get Loud on the Edge, Jimmy Page, and Jack White, From the Sky Down on U2). The common threads that run through all his films are an intense focus on the personal and a deep affection for his subjects.
Those qualities are manifest in Guggenheim's remarkable new documentary, He Named Me Malala, about the young, nearly martyred, Nobel-winning activist Malala Yousafzai. From the moment he took a taxi to her home in Birmingham, England alone and rang the doorbell, the filmmaker was captivated by the relationship that became the heart of the film: between a girl and her father.
“There’s this puzzle, there’s this mystery of this father and this daughter,” Guggenheim said when I interviewed him for Bloomberg Politics. “[W]hat was the nature of the relationship that produced this girl who has this preternatural sense [and] political sense?”
In unraveling that riddle, Guggenheim at times strips away the iconography around Malala and shows her arm-wrestling with her brothers, resting on her father’s shoulder, sitting at the kitchen table laughing. Guggenheim describes Malala as “competitive” and “wickedly funny.” By showing her as in many ways utterly ordinary, he highlights the extent to which her choices—and her courage—are all the more extraordinary.
“My daughters could be Malala because she was just an ordinary girl and in so many ways when you meet her she just is an ordinary girl,” Guggenheim said. “She was an ordinary girl who made an extraordinary choice, which was to risk her life to fight for what she believes.”
—Kendall Breitman contributed to this article.