‘The Mauritanian’: Director Kevin MacDonald Wanted To Use One Man’s Story To Raise Awareness About Guantanamo

Director Kevin Macdonald has found powerful stories to tell through lives that have been trapped in extraordinary circumstances. His new film, “The Mauritanian,” recounts the true story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim), who in November 2001 was thrown into a Kafkaesque nightmare when he was captured for supposed links to Al Qaeda. Salahi became one of many who would be swept up in the Bush White House’s rendition program in the aftermath of 9/11. His ordeal would culminate in spending 14 years at Guantanamo Bay without charges. The film dramatizes the efforts of lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) to document Salahi’s ordeal involving harsh interrogation and prove his innocence. 

In a sense the character of Salahi has much in common with the personalities that abound in Macdonald’s films. His 2003 documentary “Touching the Void” re-creates a climber’s brutal effort to crawl down alone and injured from the Andes. In 2006 Macdonald directed “The Last King of Scotland,” about a doctor wandering the court of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (played by Forest Whitaker in an Oscar-winning performance). These are lives cornered and pushed to extremes, sometimes by forces completely out of their control. With “The Mauritanian” Macdonald again charts an individual trying to persevere, but within the confines of the shadowy War on Terror. The director sat down with Entertainment Voice to discuss the making of this searing drama.

Over the years you’ve made a versatile body of work that constantly features true stories. What attracted you specifically to the story of Salahi and Hollander?

I wanted to make a film about this individual, about this person rather than just make a political film. I was motivated by wanting to talk with Mohamedou. I had read his book but I wanted to meet him. He’s an extraordinary man, one of those unique few people you might meet in life. I wanted to tell his story and represent him in a movie. But I was also thinking about how there have been many movies made in America about the War on Terror but there’s never been one made from the point of view of the other side, the receiving end. We never see the point of view of the Muslim man accused of terror, most of the time falsely. 85% of the men who were at Guantanamo were completely innocent. That’s a figure you can get from the ACLU. Enough time has passed since those first, painful days in 2001. We can now view the history from new angles. I wanted it to start where you think you know what’s going to happen, where it’s just about this guy getting accused and then his lawyer comes in. But then you’ll see it’s not that kind of movie. We’re unpeeling the layers of this man and introducing them to an incredible individual.

The way you tell the story has this Kafkaesque quality. 

That’s very true! I think that’s a great parallel because one of things here is that Mohamedou’s situation was so absurd. It’s almost surreal at times. Mohamedou is a very smart guy. He learned English very fast while being at Guantanamo. He already spoke Arabic, German and French. He’s a very educated person. So the more he tried to tell the interrogators, “hey, you’ve got the wrong guy, I wasn’t even there,” the more they would think he was some evil genius because he was so smart. So the more he had good answers they would think, “His answers are too good. He’s so clever.” Once you’re in that situation and the more you struggle, the tighter the noose gets. Even today he’s still trapped. He’s tarred by the perception people get of “oh, you were in Guantanamo, you must be a bad guy.” He still can’t get a visa to travel anywhere. When I first spoke to him his story made me so furious. I asked him if he was suing the U.S. government to at least get some compensation. He just laughed and said, “I don’t want it. I could try and spend years with that but then I would spend years reliving that hatred.” The irony is that the world is not ready to forgive him. America and Britain won’t let it go.

You mentioned earlier you didn’t set out to make a political film. But there’s that inevitable undercurrent of politics in the story. We’re 20 years removed now from 9/11 and much of the public still doesn’t grasp the scope of what was done at Guantanamo.

I think it’s a good time for people to remember there were victims on the other side as well. I’m not an American and I’m not seeking to make a movie to tell people about their own history. I’m not here to tell them what should and shouldn’t have been done. That’s not my place. But I wanted to tell a human story. But we were very careful not to make this a partisan movie. For example the prosecutor, Stuart Couch, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is a Christian, military guy. But he does the right thing. He stands against the tide of what’s going on around him. You even saw that with the recent second Trump impeachment where there are still a few individuals willing to put integrity above group think. Couch is a guy who has all this pressure to prosecute Salahi no matter what. But he won’t accept that because he can see that what’s being done goes against all that is decent and proper. So it was important for me that everybody is humanized in the story.

The human side works so well because you also have this great cast bringing these personalities to life. What was it like working with an ensemble that includes Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim and Cumberbatch?

I got a dream cast. I don’t know if you can get a better cast than this in terms of who is right for the role, and who brings the right kind of personality for these characters. There were no compromises made. That doesn’t happen often (laughs). That’s one side of the story. The other is that without these kinds of names it’s really hard to get a movie like this financed. But what’s great about having someone like Jodie is that she’s so confident and experienced that she knows exactly what she needs to come across the screen. She doesn’t want any extra dialogue. She doesn’t want extra scenes where she talks about her childhood. She will say, “I don’t need that, I don’t need that. Take stuff out.” She’s so laser focused and knows who the character is. And she’s absolutely right. With great actors they don’t need much time or all that other stuff. That’s something all of these actors have in common. 

The scenes involving Mohamedou’s interrogation in Guantanamo are absolutely harrowing. You mentioned earlier the word surreal and that’s exactly how they feel. How much research went into recreating those moments?

It was very important to us that what we show happening at Guantanamo is truthful to the way he was treated, from the way he was chained to how the guards treated him to what his cell looked like. All of that was what was most important to Mohamedou and therefore very important to me, to get that stuff right. That also includes the interrogation and torture sequences. The moments where he’s sexually harassed by a female guard or where they threaten his mother, all of that isn’t just in his testimonial but if you look at official government documents it’s all there. It’s not disputed by any side. I wanted to be in his head, his experience. That’s why we also go into this fever dream kind of quality, to also understand where your mind goes when this happens in a moment of disorientation. 

He’s like a victim of historical forces completely out of his control.

Yes, exactly, you’re exactly right. He’s caught by forces completely out of his control. And he’s an extraordinary person, which is why I was attracted to make this film, and not just a film about Guantanamo.” What film does so well is put us in someone else’s shoes. This is a perfect attempt at that. You’re trying to put people in the shoes of this character who is about as other as some can imagine but they will understand him. He’s another human being like you or me. 

And finally, you’ve told so many great true stories. Tell us about what you have coming up next? Will you again dive into history?

I think I’m going to do a documentary. I’ve got a couple of things up in the air and I’m not quite sure yet specifically what I’m going to do. But I also need a break (laughs). I’ve been working hard on this movie for a long time. It’s been a labor of love to get it made and I want to get as many people to see it as possible. So that’s kind of my full time job at this moment.

The Mauritanian” releases Feb. 12 in select cities and March 2 on VOD.