The events that have taken place inside Guantanamo Bay have been shrouded in mystery since operations began at the facility in 2002. Based in Cuba, the detention camp is precisely placed so that it exists just along the borderlines of government jurisdiction. Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s book ‘Guantanamo Diaries’ marked one of the first official accounts of some of the atrocities that took place inside the facilities. It is his story that forms the basis of ‘The Mauritanian’.
Slahi is one of 775 detainees who have been placed in Guantanamo Bay. Slahi was removed from Mauritania following the September 11 attack in 2001. He was suspected to be associated with the attack and was held in Guantanamo Bay as a detainee until 2016. He, along with the majority of detainees who have ever been held at Guantanamo, was detained without charges. ‘The Mauritanian’ presents a truthful and harrowing look into Slahi’s experience in the camp and presents a clear condemnation of the horrors that took place there. The first image of the film is simply the words: ‘This is a true story’. ‘The Mauritanian’ is determined at all points to not let its audience forget the truthful basis of its narrative.
It is firstly important to denote the precision of the storytelling. It must be appreciated that Slahi’s main lawyer, Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), comes into the case unbiased. The film paces itself carefully; it does not launch itself into an immediate, vitriolic tirade against the US government, but places its moves precisely so as not to assume itself as some anti-Bush piece of propaganda. Anyone whose so much as heard of Guantanamo must be vaguely aware of the rumours that surround the place, but the film does not make the mistake of forcing its audience’s perspective. It allows us to understand how Slahi has ended up in this situation, and we can fathom why government representatives like Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) would carry out Slahi’s imprisonment, despite him not being charged.
Both Foster and Cumberbatch’s performances allow this neutral perspective. The reservations of both characters are portrayed elegantly by the actors and you can see their hesitation and deliberations evidently in their actions. It is, however, Tahar Rahim’s performance that sets ‘The Mauritanian’ alight. The actor went to extreme lengths to get his portrayal of Slahi exactly right: he lost extreme weight for the part, walked around set in shackles and was even waterboarded. His subtle mannerisms portray the nervous energy of the detainee perfectly and you truly get a sense of what the character has been through from the offset, despite the narrative only revealing Slahi’s full story as the film plays out.
Many times, these tense dramas fall into the trappings of letting the narrative do all the talking for them. In ‘The Mauritanian’, however, director Kevin Macdonald strikes a good balance between exciting cinematography, and focus on our characters. The camera remains active throughout; the wide range of shots involves the audience in the conversations and the motion shots provide energy to scenes which, in essence, are simply sit-down conversations. Between the camerawork and the building-up of the score by Tom Hodge, the film leaves us constantly on the precipice as we wait for the unravelling of the story. When we arrive at the horrific scenes which divulge what happened to Slahi in Guantanamo, the editing and the cinematography become manic and disorientating to present the detainee’s damaged psyche to us. Perhaps the film takes it slightly too far in these moments, verging on the point of fiction when it
should really be portraying the atrocities accurately. But Macdonald cleverly chooses to break these moments up with brief stints of dialogue in order to not let the film get too surreal.
‘The Mauritanian’ gives an honest portrayal of an almost unimaginable true story. In parts, the narrative becomes difficult to watch, but the camera and the performances never flinch away in fear of disturbing us. In places, the film struggles ever so slightly to display the truth honestly, but with a story like Slahi’s, that may have been difficult for just about any director. ‘The Mauritanian’ does its utmost to visualise Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s life with dignity and without hesitance.
‘The Mauritanian’ is available on Amazon Prime Video.