Whenever one hears the words Guantanamo or Gitmo, it usually emits a pretty strong reaction. Honestly, I’m not usually keen on watching films that I know will depict torture, especially one based on a true story. The Mauritanian however, piqued my interested because of the filmmaker, Kevin Macdonald, and cast. French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim played Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a detainee at the Guantanamo Bay detention center who was held for over a decade without charges being filed against him. The story is based on Mohamedou’s NY Times best-selling memoir Guantánamo Diary, which according to a few book reviews is an extraordinarily vivid first-person account of his time in captivity.
The film opens shortly after the September 11 attacks in 2001, when Mohamedu was called into questioning by Mauritanian police while he was at a family celebration. Though he assured his mother he’d be back soon, he was not able to return home as he was subsequently arrested and later transported to Guantanamo. He had been held there for a few years before defense attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch, doing his best American accent) cross path on two opposing sides. Stuart got assigned to serve as one of the prosecutors in the military tribunal vying for the death penalty for Mohamedou, and Nancy fought to get him released pro bono. Interesting to see Zachary Levi playing against type as an unsympathetic federal agent that Couch was trying to get intel from.
The film is an intriguing mix of legal drama and thriller, and despite the harrowing and captivating subject matter, the way it’s played out is a bit uneven. The procedural aspect with Nancy and her associate Teri (Shailene Woodley) feels decidedly mundane. Even the meetings between Nancy and Stuart fall flat despite the star power of the actors portraying them. The film really comes alive whenever Mohamedou is on screen, thanks to Rahim’s captivating performance. The first time Nancy and Teri meets with him at Gitmo, Mohamedou’s able to speak English with them, which apparently he learned while in detention. That’s one of the outstanding things I can’t help but being in awe of, as well as Mohamedou’s seemingly unbreakable spirit.
Macdonald’s extensive experience as a documentary filmmaker means he took great care in creating an authentic look for the film, making sure the detention camp itself is depicted accurately, etc. One thing I find most memorable is whenever Mohamedou gets his outdoor break where he gets to breathe fresh air and even ‘befriends’ a fellow detainee next to him. He’s not able to see that man, but he’s able to communicate to each other and shockingly, Mohamedou’s actually consoled him and inspired him to remain hopeful. It’s these moments showing his humanity that makes the subsequent scenes of graphic torture even more harrowing to watch. At the same time, Macdonald didn’t want to paint with a broad brush in depicting every single person who work at Gitmo as evil, as evidenced in the tentative friendship between Mohamedou and one of his guards.
While in shackles, Mohamedou was subjected to sleep deprivation, severe isolation, temperature extremes, beatings, sexual humiliation, even a mock execution as he was blindfolded and taken out to sea. Those scenes are truly hard to watch, I had to cover my eyes and ears during much of it. The guards torturing him wore halloween animal masks, and at that point it’s as if they’ve descended into animal as they behave like one. As if that weren’t horrifying enough, there’s the emotional torture of being threatened that his mother would be brought to Gitmo and be gang-raped. Obviously the filmmakers intends for the viewers to be truly appalled by what happened, considering the perpetrators is a country supposedly known for being a beacon of liberty and hope. I don’t think we need to see it in a cinematic form to realize there is absolutely no excuse for treating fellow human beings in such a savage way.
The fact that Nancy faced obstacles in her mission to free Mohamedou is not surprising, neither is the fact that Stuart eventually found evidence about his torture that render any of his ‘confessions’ inadmissible in court. What’s most astonishing and inspiring is that Mohamedou refuses to be brought down as low as his captors. Rahim’s sensitive performance never descends to over-sentimentality and is genuinely moving. As for Foster and Cumberbatch, their presence certainly add prestige to the production but I don’t think their performances are all that memorable. I mean they’re effective in their roles, but it’s Rahim that gave the film its best moments and truly the reason to see this film. I wrote this review long before Foster was even nominated for a Golden Globes, and honestly I was surprised to see her name on the list, even more so that she won (I was rooting for Olivia Colman for The Father).
In any case, what’s definitely memorable is the appearance of the real Mohamedou during the end credits, who still retains his humor and playful spirit. Cheerfully listening to one of his favorite musicians Bob Dylan, it’s hard to comprehend this is the same guy depicted as having been brutalized and held captive for over 14 years. Mohamedou is quite charismatic that a thought occurred to me while watching him if the film would’ve worked more effectively as a documentary with Mohamedou himself at the center and unknown actors to re-enact some of the scenes. As it is, I’m not sure The Mauritanian does Mohamedou’s memoir justice nor is it the best movies about post-911, but no doubt its heart is in the right place.
Have you seen THE MAURITANIAN? Well, what did you think?