The Taliban were quite right to worry about Malala Yousafzi. When she first caught the world’s attention as a Pakistani schoolgirl determined to continue her education, perhaps they sniffed the steel, resolve and clarity of vision that could prove an obstacle to their mission of blocking women’s development. Either way, their fears have been realised as “that girl shot by the Taliban” now travels the world, stands up to its leaders and addresses the UN as a passionate advocate of education for all. But there is one topic so personal, so profound and no doubt painful that even the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Laureate can’t discuss it.
“She didn’t want to open up about being shot,” says Davis Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director who has spent the past two years making ‘He Named Me Malala’, an intimate documentary revealing the Pakistani teenager’s journey from rural schoolgirl to global phenomenon. Davis captures Malala at home in Birmingham playing with her brothers, worrying about exams, gushing over pictures of Roger Federer… only one topic, it seems, is out of bound.
“She wouldn’t open the door to her pain,” remembers Davis. “I pushed her very hard, but she refuses.”
As to the reasons for her silence on such a life-changing moment, her director says he can only speculate. “She is extraordinary, but she has a bond with other millions of girls and she’s their voice. I think she feels that if she starts to complain about anything now she is safe, it would undo a lot of her work.”
Malala continues to recover from the injuries caused by the bullet that went through her on 9 October 2012. She temporarily lost her hearing in her left ear and has striven to recover full motion on that side of her face. Does she ever cry for her plight?
“I’ve only seen her cry once, and that was at the Syrian border,” says Davis. “It was a quiet moment of compassion for the refugees she saw suffering. It wasn’t at all about self-pity.”
Back at home in Birmingham, Davis’s cameras were rolling when Malala received word that she’d been chosen to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest ever recipient. But this was the SECOND best news the 18-year-old received this year, according to Davis.
“I was with her the day she won the Peace Prize, and I was with her the day she got her GSCE results, and she was 10 times happier about her exams,” he chuckles.
“She was bouncing up and down for three days with the latter.
“I think she thought one was a gift, in comparison with something she’d earned herself,” he says. “When she wasn’t doing well with her schoolwork, she was worried, as she was trying to study in her third language.
“England can be tough, she knows people could say she’s only at a certain school because she’s famous. But her grades (six A* grades and four A grades) mean she can do whatever she wants. And she’s a huge advocate for education, so it’s very important to her that she’s seen to do well herself.”
Despite her life being defined, for many, in one traumatic moment, for her director, Malala’s being shot is actually of secondary importance.
“Lots of people are the victims of being shot, and that’s obviously worth a story, but it’s not this story,” he reflects now.
“What I found more extraordinary was her decision to speak out in the face of tyranny, and the decision of her father to allow her. That’s what makes them both so special, I think.”
And now she is safe, with her grades, her Nobel, her family, her global platform – what does the future hold for Malala?
“There’s certainly going to be another chapter,” affirms Davis Guggenheim. “She has the capability to do anything – she has the bravery, the moral courage, the intelligence. I would say the only risk would be to underestimate her. She is the full package. I don’t know who I’m going to make a film about next, but the bar is very, very high.”
'He Named Me Malala' is in UK cinemas from Friday 6 November.