Directed by Kevin Macdonald and based on the best-selling memoir “Guantánamo Diary” by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, THE MAURITANIAN is the inspiring true story of Slahi’s fight for freedom after being detained and imprisoned without charge by the U.S. Government for years. Alone and afraid, Slahi (Tahar Rahim) finds allies in defense attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) who battle the U.S. Government in a fight for justice that tests their commitment to the law and their client at every turn. Their controversial advocacy, along with evidence uncovered by a formidable military prosecutor, Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), reveals shocking truths and ultimately proves that the human spirit cannot be locked up.
We caught up with director Kevin MacDonald to talk about the highly anticipated thriller that will premiere on Amazon Prime Video in Ireland and the UK on 1st April.
Had you heard about Mohamedou Ould Slahi before you were approached about making a film?
I knew a bit of the story because when the book came out, I read reviews, and there was quite a lot about it in the Guardian newspaper. Benedict Cumberbatch did a reading for the Guardian of an extract from the book, which was how he became involved. He and his production company got the rights, and they then sent it to me. I wasn’t entirely sure how to make a film out of the book because it wasn’t written for entertainment; it wasn’t written as a story. It was just something written for his lawyers. When I spoke to Mohamedou himself, and he was such a warm, humane person, I was compelled to make it feel about him and his humanity.
How did you know that Tahar Rahim was the right actor to play Mohamedou? This was a tough film to get made for all sorts of reasons, but primarily to get the script right to tell this very complex story within two hours, and it was very hard to get money for a film of this subject matter. But the one thing that wasn’t difficult was casting the central actor. I had worked with Tahar Rahim on a movie called The Eagle a decade ago, and we remained friends. And as soon as I spoke to Mohamedou, Tahar popped up in my head, and I thought there is only one man for the job, it’s him. I phoned him and I said, I’ve got this great role for you. When we had a script, we sent it to him, and he loved the part and felt that it was something important for him to do. He stuck with the project through thick and thin because it was two years before we were given the money. He was very much a member of the creative team right from the beginning, and I think you can feel that in the performance. It is more than just another part.
Tahar has to go to some dark and painful places. How did you work with him to go to those places and make sure that he was okay after filming? We talked about it so much beforehand, and he had spoken to Mohamedou. He had all the information and all of the input I could give him and, at that point, it is really up to the magic of performance. It’s up to him where he takes that. I will say that one of the things about him is that he’s a very improvisational actor. He can’t intellectualise and articulate what he’s going to do, what the scene should feel like; he just does it. And then I’ll say, “Well, mate, that was really great, but something felt wrong there”, and he’ll do it again, and he’ll do something completely different. He will explore, and we’ll explore it together to discover the truth of the scene. He is always trying to find other ways to express different aspects of his character. When you get into the editing room, you have this range of different ways to take the scene, which is wonderful for a filmmaker.
Is it wonderful, or can it be overwhelming to have so much material?
Usually, what happens is that you try it this way, you try it that way and then you sort of figure it out. You find where the sweet spot is. Sometimes with actors, they’ll do something really special, which is just an accident or something that comes into their head spontaneously. It’s a one-off moment, and you have to hope that it was captured just right. It’s those moments that you live for as a director.
Was Mohamedou onset, and did he collaborate once filming began? He collaborated a lot before filming began on the script, and some of his family are in the film. That’s his nephew playing the young Mohamedou in the flashbacks. Various members of his family are at the wedding at the beginning of the film. When it came to filming he wasn’t really involved, but he did come down to South Africa, where we filmed the bulk of it. It was a bit of a holiday. It was the first place he managed to travel since he left Guantanamo, so he was able to have some fun. He did come to the set a couple of times. He found that very difficult. It was upsetting for him. It’s not surprising to say that he has terrible PTSD. Just being in a place that felt so like where it all happened to him, seeing the guards and seeing the dogs was really difficult.
Much of the book is redacted. I know you spoke with Mohamedou and Nancy Hollander (Mohamedou’s lawyer played by Jodie Foster), but did you do further research? The research that we did was mostly through talking to Mohamedou, reading other books written about Guantanamo, as well as Nancy Hollander, the lawyer and Teri Duncan, who was also on the legal team. They were able to give us documents and talk to us about the documents. We have the government’s point of view in there as well. Many people have said to me, did this really happen to him? Is he just saying it? Of course, the answer is yes. It is all documented from the government view as well. The files all came out eventually. In the bits where we’re trying to be accurate, it is accurate. I wouldn’t say that every single thing in the film is accurate because it tells a 15-year story, but everything that’s important in terms of the interrogations and the reality of the torture is all real.
Sometimes in legal dramas, directors get caught up in the legalese, but this is very accessible. Was that important to you to make sure that the story is accessible?
Not just the language, but I also felt it was really important to me to make a film for a general audience. There have been films and documentaries about Guantanamo and the war on terror. Often they’re aimed at the converted, they’re aimed at people who already know, who are nodding along and saying, “Well, yes, that’s what happened to him and isn’t it awful?” I didn’t want to make that sort of film. I wanted a film that would be entertaining for a general audience who would think, oh, Jodie Foster, in a legal thriller, I want to watch that. And then it changes their minds about things. They might not realise what went on in Guantanamo and think that what was happening there was all good. You know, the war on terror, we did great. They’re introduced to ideas and people that they wouldn’t usually be, by making an entertaining film. The big challenge that a film like this has is that there haven’t been films about this period in history from the Muslim point of view, from the point of view of those who were the victims of the war on terror. That’s very challenging, particularly in America, where the perspective is different. We needed to gently ease people into that by saying, oh look, it’s a familiar kind of film. It’s a legal thriller, it has big stars, but then slowly realise, oh, actually it’s not about them. It’s about the prisoner. I wanted people to find themselves entertained by him and interested in him and falling in love with him as a character. That’s the journey I want the audience to take.
Are you worried about any backlash from a particular political viewpoint?
Well, you know a film like this is bound to stir up all sorts of feelings, some of them positive, some of them negative. I think that in the end, when the film is finished, you can’t worry about that because it is out of my control. Before I make it, I’m worried about what everyone thinks but at a certain point, it’s out in the world. It’s its own baby. One of the things that we did in this movie was to represent the Republican side of things through Stuart Couch, Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. We show a good Republican, a man who is on the side of the war on terror, but when he realises what’s going on, he stands up and is counted, and he says “I’m not going to go with the flow on this. I’m going to have some integrity, and I’m not going to allow this to happen in my name”. It was important to me to show that, because I think it’s very easy to make films for those who are already converted. They don’t need to see this film. It is for people like Stuart Couch, people who look up to him. Here we have a military man, a Christian, a Republican, and people will look at him and go, “Oh, wow, he saw what happened and that this was wrong”. That’s the importance of having both sides of the political spectrum.
Kevin Macdonald’s highly anticipated thriller The Mauritanian will premiere on Amazon Prime Video in Ireland and the UK on 1st April.