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▶︎ The Mauritanian is streaming on Amazon Prime from 1 April 2021.
In 2015 the Mauritanian-born Mohamedou Ould Slahi, interned at the US detention camp at Guantánamo on suspicion of having recruited the 9/11 hijackers, published his memoir Guantánamo Diary. It went on to become a bestseller in multiple languages.
Slahi, despite having been cleared by a US court five years previously on the grounds of insufficient evidence, wasn’t finally released until 2016, having spent 14 years in the notorious ‘Gitmo’ camp. (His delayed release, depressingly enough, resulted from an appeal against the court’s verdict by the Obama administration.)
With a script that draws strongly on Slahi’s book (initially redacted by the US military, but published in full after his release), in the practised hands of Kevin Macdonald The Mauritanian creates a powerful, even oppressive, sense of authenticity. Macdonald has form here, of course: having started out with trenchant documentaries (One Day in September, 1999; Touching the Void, 2003), in his first feature, The Last King of Scotland (2006), he took a caustic look at political manoeuvrings and the structures of power.
Both these elements cross-fertilise in the present movie as the two principal opponents in the Slahi case – defence lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and military prosecutor Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) – while starting out from diametrically opposed positions, both find themselves up against the seemingly impenetrable wall of US official secrecy.
Hollander and her junior Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), having put in a Freedom of Information request for the relevant documents, receive a small mountain of boxes; the documents inside prove to be 100 per cent redacted, a mass of pitch-black tyre tracks. Couch is denied access to the circumstances of Slahi’s confession since they’re classified as an MFR (Memorandum for the Record), reserved for the eyes of the intelligence community alone.
The central irony of the film Is that as each side, prosecution and defence, doggedly slashes its way through this paranoid jungle of anti-information to find what they need, they’re brought steadily closer to each other’s position – until the revelation of how Slahi’s confession was secured (70 days of torture, including beatings, sleep deprivation, stress positions, waterboarding and sexual humiliation, culminating in the threat to arrest his mother and bring her to Gitmo to be raped) both cements Hollander’s resolution and triggers Couch’s resignation from the case.
Foster, in only her third feature-movie role in a decade, brings to her portrayal of the defence attorney all the steely-eyed determination she’s famed for (“I’m not just defending him – I’m defending the rule of law”); Cumberbatch, despite an occasionally wayward American accent, convinces as an essentially honourable man who finds his duty at odds with his conscience. Of the leading players, only Woodley’s role feels underwritten.
Key acting honours, though, go – as they must, given the subject-matter – to Tahar Rahim as Slahi. Ever since he shot to stardom as the initially naïve teenage jailbird in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (2009), Rahim has been noted for the slow-burn intensity he can bring to the most dramatic of set-ups. Here, as the unjustly accused Mauritanian, he succeeds in conveying an inner integrity and even a wry sense of humour through the most repellent episodes of the treatment he’s subjected to. His speech to the judge at his trial, renouncing justified anger (“I am trying to forgive”) is a model of quiet dignity.
The film was shot in Cape Province in South Africa, on a modest budget. Even so, the recreation of Gitmo, from its omnipresent steel fences and coiled razor-wire to its tacky gift-shop and anomalous notices (“Do Not Harm the Iguanas – Penalty $10.00”), feels scarily convincing.
Macdonald steers clear of flashy camerawork, building tension through swift cutting between the three principals as the disreputable truth emerges from the plethora of documentation, the relentless glare of the Cuban sun contrasting with the dinginess of Slahi’s windowless cell. Tom Hodge’s score leavens nervy, percussive tones for the prison scenes with a gentle lyricism evoking Slahi’s memories of his home country.
A final credit tells us that of the 799 prisoners interned at Gitmo, just eight have been tried and convicted; and that three of those convictions were overturned on appeal.
Sight & Sound May 2021
In our current issue, Barry Jenkins talks truth, justice and his powerfully resonant series adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Plus Promising Young Woman and the virgin/whore trope, Aubrey Plaza on Black Bear, Martin Scorsese’s discovery of Joe Pesci, Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, and a classic Satyajit Ray interview. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy