We speak to the director of the new Malala documentary about the criticism he's faced, and why films will never change the world.
There is no shortage of criticism documentarian Davis Guggenheim has received for his latest film, He Named Me Malala. At Time Out, David Ehrlich wrote that the movie was "as insightful as her Wikipedia page and half as coherent." Many others lament the film doesn't do its eponymous subject, Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old on the frontline for the rights of children around the world, justice. Davis Guggenheim is well caught up on the critiques hurled at him, and has no problem discussing the intellectual and aesthetic dilemmas he faces while making documentaries.
Is there a certain kind of documentary you strive to make? VICE has a house style, Errol Morris has his own style, Frederick Wiseman is Frederick Wiseman.
I'm hearing a pretentious answer that I don't want to give to you…
Give it to me.
Here's the thing, I think you find out after you've made your films what your style is. I never set out to make a certain type of movie, but then you look back and there's a continuity between them. So I look back and I think I generally make movies about people I care deeply about, and I want my movies to be very personal. I want my movies to personal and intimate. I seem, as I look at it, not to make movies I don't like. But I'm a complete mystery to myself in that regard. I would say stylistically I love to jump around. I've done a lot of television, I've done some movies, I did some pilots for CBS, I did Deadwood for HBI, which had an intense amount animation in it. I like to jump around. I don't like to do the same movie over and over again.
Do you think your admiration or love for the subject can ever cloud your vision, or objective as a documentarian?
Yeah, some of the critical reviews of this movie say I'm too soft on Malala.
Do you buy that?
I don't know what I'm supposed to have said. Like, she doesn't floss at night? She's got bad dental hygiene? I don't know. I know how to make a political movie. Like, Waiting for Superman, we went into the rat's nest of American public school system. I didn't want to do that with this one. I think if I told the geopolitical story of that world, the rise of the Taliban, it would have been a very different movie. You would have missed the thing that I was really interested in, which was to tell this story of this father and this daughter, which has its own mystery to it.
Are you looking for results as a result of your movie?
Yes, I do, but I have to be very careful, because films don't make change. Like if you look at An Inconvenient Truth, which had a really big audience — and it became part of the climate change conversation — but the movie didn't reduce the amount of carbon in the air. So I've learned that I have to be really careful about that. I'm a storyteller, not an activist. I'm a storyteller that believes very passionately about certain issues, and that wants the storytelling to help change the conversation of things, and I'm a dreamer. I want the films I make to have an impact, but really the impact is on people's hearts and minds, and it's up to people to make change.
You can't be both an activist and a filmmaker?
I think you can, there are filmmakers that are activists. I just think that that's really getting into the heart of the matter for me, which is that, when I watch a movie, I don't want someone to tell me how to think and what to do. And as much An Inconvenient Truth makes a case that climate change is real, it never tells you what to do. The same with this movie. In the end you can go on, you can give money to the Malala Fund, and become invested in the Syrian refugee crisis and become a soldier in Malala's cause, but the movie never asks you to do that.
You think your movies don't tell people what to do?
I think my movies have a strong angle on an issue. There's no question that An Inconvenient Truth says climate change is real, there's no question that Waiting for Superman says that there's a crisis in our public school system and it's affecting our kids, but it never tells the audience, now it's time to do x, y, and z. The job of a filmmaker is to give the audience an experience. Not go into a political dialectic, not try to persuade people how to act.
Do you believe that there's such a thing as objectivity in filmmaking?
Yeah, it's interesting, because the roots of documentary are in journalism, right?
Well, not all.
Yeah, but some of the early ones. We'll probably debate this, but documentaries are to show you something real.
Harlan County, USA.
Yeah, and like Nanook of the North if you want to go all the way back. I don't try to be dispassionate. My passions, and the things that worry me and disturb me, I want those things to be in the movie. I want people to feel that. But I don't want to tell people what to do. We're parsing our words here.
So what disturbs you?
I mean, I was there standing next to Malala, and 300 Syrians were crossing the border into Jordan, carrying everything they could with them. And it disturbs me to think maybe those families now in Hungary or trying to get into Germany, or worse, still stuck in a refugee camp in Jordan. That this has happened and time is weighing on them. That disturbs me.
Does Donald Trump disturb you?
Donald Trump? In a huge way.
It blows my mind.
It's very disturbing how misperceived the Muslim world is to the west. It's very disturbing that this very narrow perception and monolithic perception is such a huge part of the world. We think of America as this place that is so open minded, and so worldly, and so informed, and then you think of how many Americans see the Muslim world, and how it contradicts that to some extent.
I don't know if I see America like that.
How do you see America?
Well, distracted. But maybe you're more optimistic than I am. Perhaps that's what fuels your movies.
No, I think we're distracted. I think in every movie I make, I think about a disconnect that happens between the audience and the story that I'm trying to tell. Whether it's climate change or what, there's a disconnect, and people sort of get the signals, but they're not really focused. American public school system, that will never be solved. That's a quagmire. People are distracted. But people are also misinformed, like the only news that we get from this part of the world is negative and scary.
Is there somewhere you want to go in your career that you haven't?
I've always wanted to make a film about Washington, the sort of dysfunction that's in Washington.
You'd have to pick one dysfunction.
[laughs] That's a gnarly one. I'm stuck, I don't know how to do it. It's like where's the humanity in that story?
What's stopping you?
How do you get your arms around that story? A movie is a story.