Malala Yousafzai is already an icon to millions, and filmmaker Davis Guggenheim hopes his new documentary will make the activist even more relatable to young people around the world.
“I started to read about the story, and I realized that most of us think of this girl as the girl who was shot on her school bus,” the He Named Me Malala documentarian exclusively tells PEOPLE at the 40th Toronto International Film Festival. “The story has much more depth and meaning to it.”
Long before Yousafzai was shot, she was campaigning for women’s rights and education. From as early as 11 years old, she was blogging about her experiences living under Taliban rule, and giving interviews to international press outlets like The New York Times.
“This is a girl who as a young girl stood up and spoke out, even risking her life for what she believed in, which is that every girl should be able to go to school,” Guggenheim explains.
“When I met her she was 15 and she was still in recovery from being shot,” Guggenheim remembers. “She was recovering in Birmingham, England. The bullet had gone through her face, had snapped the nerve, destroyed little bones in her ear that means she can’t hear very well. She’s still getting feeling and movement back.”
Despite her injuries, Yousafzai became even more committed to her cause. She bravely used the publicity around the shooting to spread her message of love, forgiveness and, above all, the importance of education.
“To her, the prizes are great, but being a student and doing well as a student is the most important work,” Guggenheim says.
With his documentary, Guggenheim wants show young people, especially young women, that despite being the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate, Yousafzai is still a relatable hero.
“When you think about icons, and I think she’s an icon, you think, ‘Well they’re larger than life and they do these amazing things,’ ” the director explains. “What you see when you see this movie is that she’s a girl who’s extraordinary.
“And I think that’s important when you think of icons, because sometimes icons are so impressive that you think, ‘I could never be them.’ But when you meet Malala, my daughters look at her and say, ‘Well if she did it, I can do it too.’ ”
He Named Me Malala is being screened at TIFF, and opens everywhere Oct. 2.