British newspaper The Guardian published on its March 26 issue a new article featuring Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tahar Rahim and Jodie Foster talking about “The Mauritanian”, ahead of the film’s release on Amazon Prime UK next April 1.
You can see the exclusive scans on our gallery and read the article below:
‘We don’t live in a world of goodies and baddies, do we?’ The true story behind The Mauritanian.
Mohamedou Ould Slahi was tortured and detained without charge in Guantánamo for 14 years. Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch discuss bringing his memoir to life.
When Mohamedou Ould Slahi came to South Africa to visit the set of The Mauritanian, it was a strange and complicated experience, he says. The film tells the story of Slahi’s experience as possibly the highest-profile detainee at the infamous Guantánamo Bay camp in Cuba. He was kidnapped, tortured in ways barely imaginable and incarcerated for 14 years, but never charged with a crime. Now he was walking around an uncanny replica of his former prison, on a sun-baked set near Cape Town.
He watched a scene on a monitor in which Tahar Rahim played him and Jodie Foster played Nancy Hollander, the lawyer who was instrumental in Slahi’s release. But Slahi could barely look, he says: “It was so reminiscent of my time in Guantánamo Bay that I just pretended to be like British people, you know? Just be nice. But I didn’t do anything. I didn’t listen to the audio and I looked away from the scene.”
Rahim recalls Slahi’s visit very well: “He was trying to hide his pain and his suffering by cracking jokes and talking to people, but I could tell that seeing the set, that was so well done, affected him. Nancy Hollander was there as well. So Mohamedou and Nancy were watching that scene and they held hands and started to cry together. Really, it was moving. At some point, he said: ‘I want to go back to the hotel.’ It was too hard to handle.”
Since 9/11 and the Iraq war, Hollywood has doled out a steady stream of Guantánamo and “war on terror” movies, most of which have railed against bad US foreign policy from the perspective of good Americans – movies such as Rendition, Lions for Lambs, The Report and Camp X-Ray (with Kristen Stewart as a Guantánamo guard who befriends an Arab detainee). The Mauritanian is different in that is it based on Slahi’s first-hand account, Guantánamo Diary, published in 2015. As such, it puts a sympathetic, Muslim person of colour at its centre, rather than a hand-wringing white American.
But the film also incorporates the stories of characters who could well fit the “white saviour” profile. One is Foster’s Hollander, who fought heroically to bring Slahi’s case to light, along with her assistant Teri Duncan (played by Shailene Woodley). The other is Lt Col Stuart Couch, the US military prosecutor, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Couch lost a friend on one of the planes that crashed into the twin towers on 9/11 and was so committed to securing retribution that he pledged he would stick the needle in Slahi’s arm himself.
Ultimately, though, he became as appalled as Hollander at the way his country was obtaining inadmissible evidence from Slahi and other Guantánamo inmates through “enhanced interrogation” techniques. Some have criticised The Mauritanian for once again letting the US off the hook by portraying them as the good guys.
“The system is the villain and we see the system acting upon people,” says Kevin Macdonald, the film’s director. “I wanted to show the legal side of it for a number of reasons. One, because I think we all felt that spending two hours in Guantánamo would be really, really difficult dramatically and would be very difficult for an audience to watch. But, second, because it feels like the story of what the lawyers did is a major part of Mohamedou’s narrative. It’s not the book that he wrote … this is a story about the breaking of the rule of law. That’s really what, ultimately, it becomes.”
Foster agrees: “It doesn’t feel like a white-saviour movie to me,” she says. “And I think the film-makers were pretty careful about that. This is Mohamedou’s story, told from his perspective. There are moments where we shift out of his perspective in order to, in a documentary way, give the points of view of the other characters. But I don’t think that Nancy Hollander is letting America off the hook; Nancy Hollander is somebody who challenges the system from within it and we’re lucky to have her … Nancy is the person who got Mohamedou to write the book and, in the end, the book is the only reason that he got released.”
After 55 years in the business, this is the first time Foster has portrayed a real person, she says. She admits she is “picky” about her roles these days and only takes ones she feels are meaningful and purposeful. This one ticked the boxes: “It’s a dark time in our history and sometimes it takes 20 years to be able to look back and really understand how we got there.”
Cumberbatch also disputes that The Mauritanian lets the US off the hook. “I sort of get the point,” he says. “But I just don’t think we live in that world, do we, of black-and-white goodies and baddies? If you really want someone to shout at, should we have Donald Rumsfeld do a walk-on? And Dick Cheney? Maybe even some people in the Obama administration?” On his election in 2008, Barack Obama pledged to close Guantánamo Bay, but it is still operating to this day. A US judge ordered Slahi’s release in 2010, but he remained imprisoned for another six years.
Cumberbatch is doubly invested in The Mauritanian; he is a co-producer. Like Foster, he was moved by Slahi’s book (he read a passage from it for the UK launch in 2015). As a producer, it is “exactly the kind of story I want to be telling. It’s shining a light on a dark place.” Cumberbatch’s decision to portray Couch, a conservative Christian from North Carolina who became an immigration judge during the Trump administration, came at a very late stage. “I was more persuaded of it, especially when the script developed and Couch’s character’s journey became a very interesting arc,” he says.
Just as Foster met Hollander (“Yes, she does wear bright-red lipstick and bright-red nail polish and likes to wear a lot of black leather and drive race cars, but my Nancy is a lot meaner than the real Nancy”), so Cumberbatch met Couch, in London last year. Cumberbatch was surprised at how well they got along: “He was really amenable, gentle, gentlemanly, very humorous, self-deprecating. He was flattered that we would be including his part of the story – and honoured.” Couch even gave Cumberbatch his gold marine wings, which were smelted by his father.
It is peculiar to hear a North Carolina accent, rather than the Queen’s English or even Doctor Strange’s American, coming out of Cumberbatch’s mouth. “It’s amazing how people who are not from North Carolina have said it’s not very accurate,” he says, laughing. “Funnily enough, [Couch] and his friends and his family, who are from North Carolina, say I’ve got it down, which I’m quite proud of. It’s a hard one, definitely. But you just commit to it.”
Going considerably further in their commitment was Rahim, whose powerful performance as Slahi has received awards recognition (the movie has five Bafta nominations, although it was cold-shouldered by the Oscars). In his book, Slahi recounts a shocking litany of abuses. He was shackled, interrogated ceaselessly, beaten, humiliated in weird sexual games with masked guards and deprived of food, warmth, space, sleep, quiet and his Qur’an. Guards threatened to gang-rape his mother. He was blindfolded and taken out to sea for a mock execution. All to extract a confession of a connection to the 9/11 attackers that never existed.
“I wanted to come as close as I could to the actual conditions of this man without actually being in danger,” says Rahim, who had Skyped with Slahi on numerous occasions before they met in South Africa. “I was not able to make it up just with my own experience. So, out of respect for Mohamedou and the people who’ve been through this, and my director and the audience, I had to do it, like, for real.”
Rahim instructed the film’s team to shackle him and to make his cell as cold as possible: “It wasn’t cold enough, so I asked them to spray me with water.” He even subjected himself to being waterboarded, “but we had our codes. I would tap their legs three or four times when I couldn’t go any further.” How did it feel? “Strange. Very strange. But, in the back of my head, I knew that, at the end of the day, I would go to my hotel; it’s nothing like what Mohamedou has been through.”
Rahim ate very little and lost a great deal of weight, he says. “This is a very interesting experience as an actor, because, emotionally, it takes it to the point where … I don’t know … it makes your spirit fly to places you never expected. Typically, it’s the other way round: you draw on your emotions and you give it to the audience. It’s our job, right? This time, my emotions and my feelings would pop up like I couldn’t control them. And the mistake would have been to try to control them. So I just let them lead me to some places that felt like truth.”
By the final torture scenes, Rahim felt like he was hallucinating, he says: “I almost saw my own mum in the cell. And I said to Kevin: ‘I can only do one more take; I’m sorry, I can’t do it twice.’ And then I collapsed.” Did he recover OK? “Yes. I ate like a pig.” He lets out a laugh, but the experience stayed with him: “Usually, it’s harder for me to get into my characters than to get out of them. But this time, it took me three weeks to get out of Mohamedou. I can’t explain why.”Advertisement
Slahi praises Rahim’s portrayal, although he points out: “No matter how bad you make the torture scenes, the reality was much worse. Because you cannot put on screen 70 days and nights with no sleep. And this is the easiest part of the torture.” Slahi – who learned English from his Guantánamo guards – can’t explain the state he was in. He became very vulnerable – “like a child”, he says. “But when you embrace your weakness, that’s when you become strong.”
Despite being a bestselling author, Slahi had no involvement in the film’s screenplay, which was written by MB Traven, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani. It is a different ballgame, he says: “Writing is like driving a car. Writing the beats of a screenplay? It’s like driving a rover on Mars. You have to be absolutely, extremely precise.”
Yet the film reflects Slahi’s personality. Most people who meet Slahi are floored by his warm, cheerful disposition and, despite all he has been through, his capacity for forgiveness. Slahi appears to harbour no animosity towards those who stole 15 years of his life and egregiously violated his human rights. “My first instinct was always revenge, but this is something I passed completely,” he says. “I’m not looking to get even with anyone in my life.”
Rahim describes him as “a mix between Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela”. Even when he was at Guantánamo Bay, he befriended his captors, appealing to their better natures. Echoing Stewart in Camp X-Ray, one of Slahi’s guards, Steve Wood, remains a close friend; he even converted to Islam. He came to Mauritania to visit Slahi last year. The reunion is captured in the Guardian short film My Brother’s Keeper.
Slahi has been enjoying every moment of his freedom, he says, although he is practically a prisoner in Mauritania. Since his release, no western country has granted him a visa. Fortunately, South Africa did. As well as the set of The Mauritanian, Slahi visited another prison there: Robben Island, where Mandela and other enemies of the apartheid regime were held for decades. “I could hear the ghosts,” says Slahi. “The people who wasted their youth in that prison.” The parallels are self-evident, but Slahi avoids making a direct comparison: “Suffering and injustice have too many faces; all of them are ugly.”
One thing did catch his attention, though: the sign over the gate at Robben Island reads: “We serve with pride.” Guantánamo’s equivalent slogan reads: “Honour bound to defend freedom.”
Last month, Joe Biden pledged to close Guantánamo Bay, although he can expect to face the same legal challenges and Republican opposition as Obama did. For now, the facility is still in operation; 40 people are detained there. They cannot move on, like Slahi has. Nor, perhaps, can the US, until it has examined its recent history.
“When it comes to the reception of the film, the thing I am most pleased about is not the awards nominations,” says Macdonald. “It is the response of ordinary Americans who have watched the film and then contacted me to say: ‘I used to think that what we did down in Guantánamo was justified, that the only people who were held there were guilty of heinous terrorist crimes. But, having seen the movie, I realise that I was wrong.’ For any issue-based film, the ultimate goal has to be to change people’s minds; not to speak to the audience that already agrees with you and have them feel good about their opinions.”
Like Slahi, The Mauritanian does not cater to expectations of vengeance or good triumphing over bad. Things are not always that easily resolved. “We’re not putting America in the dock,” says Cumberbatch. “In this time of oppositional politics, I don’t think we want another slanging match. We want to see that there’s nuanced argument. And we also want to see that people can be persuaded from either side of the political spectrum. You couldn’t get two people more diametrically opposed than Nancy Hollander and Couch, but they came to the same conclusion.”
Guantánamo Bay was born of a desire for revenge for 9/11, says Foster. “It’s a painful part of our time; we were filled with fear and terror,” she says. “I think it hasn’t been processed and we also don’t have all the information. But I do think that it’s very relevant to what’s happening today. So, we can look at the ramifications of that philosophy: that idea of vengeance as opposed to justice, that idea that it’s really just the ends that matter and not the means. That philosophy gets you into a lot of trouble.”
The Mauritanian will be available in the UK on Amazon Prime Video from 1 April.