Capturing Guantánamo

Kevin Macdonald on Mohamedou Ould Salahi, Guantánamo Bay and making The Mauritanian

by Jennie Kermode

Tahar Rahim as Mohamedou Ould Salahi in The Mauritanian
Tahar Rahim as Mohamedou Ould Salahi in The Mauritanian Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

In 2000, electrical engineer Mohamedou Ould Salahi was arrested in his native Mauritania on suspicion of having ties to al Qaeda. He was subsequently moved to Jordan and, in August 2002, to Guantánamo Bay. There he would spend the next 14 years without ever being given a trial. In his heavily redacted memoir, Guantánamo Diary, he reflected on his experiences there and on the lawyers who helped him. That book forms the basis of Kevin Macdonald’s film The Mauritanian, which stars Tahar Rahim in the central role with support from Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch.

I spoke with Kevin in the run-up to the film’s online screening as part of the Glasgow Film Festival, and asked him where he first came across Mohamedou’s story.

Jodie Foster as Nancy Hollander in The Mauritanian
Jodie Foster as Nancy Hollander in The Mauritanian Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

“I was aware when the book came out in 2015, published by Canongate, great Scottish publisher,” he says. “It was a bit of a cause célèbre at the time, because it was the first book written from within Guantánamo, and it was published with all the redactions in it. So it was like this amazing object, not just because of the circumstance under which was written but just to look at: through it is all black, and black. So I was aware of it, but I didn't read it. And then about a year later, or two years later, I was sent it by Benedict Cumberbatch’s company who had optioned the rights. And I read it.

“It was totally fascinating, but I couldn't see what the film was in there. Because it's a relentless record, really, of mistreatment. In some ways, it’s very beautifully written, and you can see that he's actually got the soul of a writer, he's a real writer. And so I was intrigued by it, but I couldn't see it translating into a film, if for no other reason than that there's no real relationship. The guards, torturers and supervisors come and go. So I spoke to Mohamedou, and he totally surprised me by how warm and friendly and even funny he is, and how he's been able to forgive what happened. And he has said this a lot, but I think if he has a superpower, his superpower is that he's able to put himself into the shoes of other people and understand why people might do what they do. And I think that's an amazing thing.

“I just thought he was a remarkable person, one of the most interesting and admirable people I've ever met, and I thought, I want to make a film about that character. And when we spoke on, it became obvious that the closest relationship he had when he was in prison was with Nancy Hollander. And she went to visit him every two months for all these years [after she decided to represent him]. And that was how we came up with this sort of twin track of telling the legal story and his personal story at the same time.”

Tahar Rahim inside the recreated prison
Tahar Rahim inside the recreated prison Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

I tell him that I liked the film partly because there are quite a few stories out there about prisoners in general and people fighting for their release or for justice, but we don't very often see the kind of story that Benedict Cumberbatch’s character presents here, with somebody who's working for the prosecution explaining what's wrong with just finding somebody to be guilty as opposed to finding the right person.

“Yeah, well, I think you're absolutely right,” he says. “I didn't want to make another film, which was saying, ‘Oh, the George Bush period of American politics was terrible and these people were evil.’ I wanted to make a human drama, which was about individuals: three really remarkable people. And I also didn't want to make a film that was caught up in the partisanship of America at the moment, you know, where the Republicans are the bad guys. And I think the thing about what Benedict does is that here's a man who you might, in a lazy kind of way, think, oh, he's a Republican, he's a Christian, he's a military guy, he's a prosecutor. You know, he's the bad person. And actually, the real Stuart Couch, he's all of those things but he's a fundamentally decent person.

“To me, it's kind of important to be reminded that integrity doesn't just lie with one political side. And he's a man who stood up against the flow of groupthink, when everyone in the American government was thinking, you know, we’ve got to get our best revenge on these people who committed the 9/11 atrocities, and they were so angry and so incensed by what happened. They threw the rule of law under the bus. And he stands up and says, ‘No, we can't do this.’ And he realises what has actually happened. At one time, he stands up and goes ‘No, we're not going to do this. It's against our constitution, it's against my principles as a lawyer. And most importantly, for him, it was against his his Christian beliefs.”

Benedict Cumberbatch as Stuart Couch in The Mauritanian
Benedict Cumberbatch as Stuart Couch in The Mauritanian Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

The role of Couch almost went to somebody else, he says.

“To begin with, he [Cumberbatch] wasn't going to be in the film. Quite late in the day, I had cast, I think, Jodie and Charlene and Tahar Rahim, and we were about to send out that [role] to some well known American actors who hadn't read the script for a while. And then Benedict read it and said ‘This is a really good, it’s a really good role.’ And I said ‘Why don't you take it?’

“He had a very complicated schedule, but he managed to fit it in. So yeah, that was an added bonus that we weren't expecting. The thing with Benedict is that he was so determined to be very specific about who that character is. Couch even gave him some of his military insignia, medals and things, to wear. I said, ‘Just do a generic American accent. You can't do Couch’s accent, it's such a strange Southern North Carolina accent. And he's like, ‘No, no, no, I have to be as specific as possible to him.’ And in the end, of course, that was the right decision, because it makes that very specific, very human. And you really believe that kind of evangelical Christian aspect of it, you know?”

I tell him that, to me, Tahar Rahim is one of the most interesting actors of his generation, but he’s never had a leading role like this in a major film. How did he end up in this one?

“Well, you know, I've worked with him before. I think I did the first ever English language film with him, which is called The Eagle, set in Scotland with Channing Tatum. I’d just seen his amazing film A Prophet, which is the thing that brought him to attention internationally. And I said to the casting director, ‘Oh my God, do you think we could get him to come and just do a little part?’ And they said, ‘Well, he doesn't speak English.’ And I said, ‘Oh, well, it's fine. I'm going to make this part speak Gaelic.’ He was a lovely guy. He put up with the worst winter weather in a film set outdoors and in cold rivers. And we remain good friends.

The Mauritanian poster
The Mauritanian poster

“So when I first met Mohamedou, there was only one person. I knew, instantly, it had to be him. Also because I'd seen him over the years, he’d been working very hard on his English, and I think one of the remarkable things about his performance is that you never for a moment don't believe that he that he understands what he's saying. And that's not just because his English is so good, but because he had a lot of time to prepare for it. We worked a lot of the dialogue, on the grammar of it being what a foreigner would say, how an Arabic person would say things in terms of the order of words and so on. But yes, he's, he's remarkable. He's one of the great actors of our generation. And I think he now is going to have opportunities, I think, to work internationally in a way that very few actors who don't have English as a first language do.”

Did he spend time with Mohamedou as well? He seems to capture that personality really well.

They spoke a lot on Skype, Kevin explains. “Actually, we’d just started filming and Mohamedou managed to come down with Nancy Hollander to South Africa, where we filmed and so they met there. But yeah, I took a lot of videos of Mohamedou as well, which I would be constantly sharing. And I think for him [Rahim], you know, this is a significant role. He’s deliberately turned down, for years and years, playing these kind of terrorist roles that he's been offered in Hollywood. And this, he felt, was a very positive representation. And he felt the weight of that, and so he put everything into it, really everything.”

How about their locations? How did the go about capturing Guantánamo Bay itself? Did they actually visit? No, says Kevin.

Demanding justice
Demanding justice Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

“You can visit as a journalist, but it's not the same place that you see, and where you can go it looks more like a normal American prison. So I didn't think it was worth it. I wish I had the time, but I had very little time or money, and I probably wouldn't have got permission.

“But it was very important to Mohamedou that the place feel accurate, that was almost the most important thing, so he spent a lot of time explaining things to us, tiny details about the locks on the doors, the size of holes in the screens. He really, really went into that in a very detailed way. So it is as accurate as we could possibly make it in terms of what the physical place is like. But the other thing that he was obviously keen to be accurate on was the torture itself. And that is really what happens. And it's obviously not just his testimony that tells us, because the lawyer did get hold of the American government documentation on it, which which absolutely affirms what Mohamedou said. It’s a very factual representation,”

There really is a gift shop, he says, as I query one of the film’s more bizarre moments. “And the gift shop does have all the T-shirts and mugs.”

Finally, I ask if he hopes that the film will make it easier for other persons to have to get justice.

“Absolutely,” he says. “There's 40 people, I think, that are still there, and we hope that this film will play a small part in the conversation that is going on already in the Biden administration, to close it. He's announced a review of the prison with a view to closing it. We have been speaking with people in Washington. Maybe we can play a small part in that. And that was one of the things that myself and obviously the lawyers Nancy and Teri, and Mohamedou, would very much like to see happen. I think it would send a great signal to the world and, by the way, say that America is back as a as a place of justice, sort of a shining beacon.”

The Mauritanian is available to own on Digital from 20 April, 2021, Video on Demand from 4 May, 2021 and on Blu-ray™ and DVD from 11 May, 2021 from STXfilms and Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

If you want to know more about the current situation in Guantánamo Bay, you can check out the regular updates from Human Rights Watch.

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