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“The Mauritanian”: Film Tells Story of Innocent Man Held at Guantánamo for 14 Years Without Charge

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Image Credit: The Mauritanian / STXfilms

A new feature film, “The Mauritanian,” tells the story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian man who was held without charge for 14 years at the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo and repeatedly tortured. We speak with Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who says the film is not just about his struggle. “This is not my movie. This is the movie of so many people,” he says. “Some of the people who were kidnapped after 9/11 were tortured to death. They did not have a chance to tell their story.” We also speak with Kevin Macdonald, director of “The Mauritanian”; Nancy Hollander, the lead lawyer for Mohamedou Ould Slahi; and actor Tahar Rahim, whose portrayal of Slahi earned him a Golden Globe nomination.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the new feature film, The Mauritanian. The film tells the story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian man held without charge for 14 years, during which time he was repeatedly tortured. In the film, Slahi is portrayed by Tahar Rahim, and Jodie Foster plays Slahi’s lawyer, Nancy Hollander.

SGT. S. SANDS: [played by Langley Kirkwood] If you stray outside the designated areas, you will be removed from the island.

BADGING OFFICER: [played by Rob van Vuuren] It’s recommended you wear a hijab when visiting your client. We’ve had incidents of inmates spitting at female lawyers.

JOHN: [played by Daniel Janks] You want to represent the head recruiter for 9/11?

COL. BILL SEIDEL: [played by Corey Johnson] Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the Mauritanian, held in Guantánamo. You recruited the guys who flew your friends’ plane into the south tower.

CATHY TAYLOR: [played by Justine Mitchell] He put those men on my husband’s plane?

STUART COUCH: [played by Benedict Cumberbatch] I’m going to make him pay.

GUARD: [played by Toni Jean Erasmus] In the event the detainee lunges for you, push back away from the table. We’ll get in there as quick as we can.

NANCY HOLLANDER: [played by Jodie Foster] I’m Nancy Hollander. This is my associate. We wish to represent you.

STUART COUCH: We are seeking the death penalty. But if we miss something, this guy goes home. Let’s get to it.

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: [played by Tahar Rahim] Call this number. Speak to my mother. Tell her something nice.

NANCY HOLLANDER: The U.S. government is holding upwards of 700 prisoners in Guantánamo. Since when did we start locking people up without a trial in this country?

TERI DUNCAN: [played by Shailene Woodley] That’s a lot of case files.

NANCY HOLLANDER: The prosecution won’t show us the evidence they have against you. It’s all redacted.

KENT: [played by David Fynn] You got a problem, take it up with the government.

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: All my time here I have been told, “You are guilty,” not for something that I have done, but because of suspicions and associations. I am innocent.

NANCY HOLLANDER: He has been interrogated. He has been held against his will for six years without a single charge being laid against him.

STUART COUCH: Doesn’t it bother you at all working for someone like this?

NANCY HOLLANDER: I’m not just defending him, I’m defending the rule of law.

STUART COUCH: You haven’t seen what I’ve seen.

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: Where I’m from, in Mauritania, we know not to trust the police. But never did I believe that the United States of America would use fear and terror to control me.

GEN. GEOFFREY MANDEL: [played by Matthew Marsh] A couple sleepless nights, that’s all.

STUART COUCH: I’ve never been part of a conspiracy, but I am starting to think this is what it must feel like to be on the outside of one.

NEIL BUCKLAND: [played by Zachary Levi] You’re overthinking this. Either wear the jersey or get off the field.

NANCY HOLLANDER: You need to tell me what happened to you, or I can’t defend you. Do you understand that?

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: You’re asking me to set fire to this place, but I’m still sitting in it.

TERI DUNCAN: Maybe he’s guilty.

NANCY HOLLANDER: Maybe he is. But we’re doing our job.

TERI DUNCAN: I’m not welcome home. That’s not a part of my job.

STUART COUCH: If I’m wrong, when it comes to my reckoning, I’m the one that will have to answer for it.

COL. BILL SEIDEL:What makes you think you’re any better than the rest of us?

STUART COUCH: I don’t think I’m better than anybody else. That is the point!

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: For eight years, I have been dreaming of being in a courtroom. Now that I’m here, I am scared to death.

NANCY HOLLANDER: You know, I think I’ve figured out why they built Guantánamo down there. My client, he’s not a suspect. He’s a witness.

JUDGE ROBERTSON: [played by Andre Jacobs] Mr. Slahi, would you please raise your right hand and repeat after me?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for The Mauritanian, which is now streaming online. In addition to Nancy Hollander and Mohamedou Ould Slahi, we are joined by the film’s director, Kevin Macdonald. His past films include the Oscar-winning documentary, One Day in September, also Touching the Void and The Last King of Scotland.

Kevin, welcome to Democracy Now! I was wondering if you could start by talking about how you came to do this film?

KEVIN MACDONALD: Good morning, Amy.

I came to do this film because I was sent Mohamedou’s beautiful book, Guantánamo Diary, which is the basis for the film. And I read it. I thought it was an amazing piece of writing. But I couldn’t figure out how to make a film out of it, and I was going to turn down the offer. And then the producer said to me, “Talk to Mohamedou.” And that’s what I did. I got on Skype with him in Mauritania. And as you can see, it’s not always the most reliable signal to Mauritania. But we had a long chat, and I was so captivated by him and his personal story.

And I think one of the struggles there’s been with communicating the sheer scale of the horror and the injustice of Guantánamo has been that there hasn’t been a single figure who has had the charisma and the appeal, I guess, if you put it in a crass way, to reach out to a wide audience to make people understand, on a human level, what went on there. And I think Mohamedou, I saw, was that person. Mohamedou is such a charismatic, such an intelligent person. And I think that in his book and in his person — and, I hope, in the film — we present a very human portrait of what it’s like to be imprisoned in that hellish place.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the making of the film, the getting of the major actors? I mean, Jodie Foster is also executive producer. She just won a Golden Globe for playing Nancy Hollander, also our guest on today’s show, the persevering lawyer from New Mexico who represents Mohamedou Ould Slahi. And how you got it distributed and what it means to play in this country, though it’s not a U.S. distributor, is that right?

KEVIN MACDONALD: No, it is. It’s a U.S. distributor. The finance is largely American, in fact. There’s a little bit from the BBC in Britain, but the rest of the finance is American. But it was very, very hard, as you can imagine, with this subject matter. And I think, you know, even five years ago, we probably couldn’t have got this movie made in America. We certainly couldn’t have got American money.

But now, I think, you know, Guantánamo is at a sufficient distance that maybe people’s sensitivities are a little more — a little blunted, which is helpful. But, of course, it is still an ongoing issue. There still are 40 people there. Mohamedou was only released in 2016, so it’s only five years ago. And we started working on the film, you know, or Nancy started working on the possibility of a film even before he was released.

So, it was a hard film to get made. And the only reason it happened was because these actors — Benedict Cumberbatch, who everyone knows from playing Sherlock, of course; Shailene Woodley, who’s a wonderful young actress; and Jodie Foster; and Tahar Rahim, who’s very well known in Europe, particularly in France — because they got behind it and saw that these were wonderful roles, but not only that, but they were — that this was a film that really, really wanted and needed their support.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to talk with Tahar Rahim in just a minute. We’re going to break and then come back to our discussion about this new feature film, that has just been released. It is called The Mauritanian. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “I Can’t Find My Way Home” by Ellen McIlwaine. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. I want to go to another clip from The Mauritanian, when Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s character meets with his lawyers, Nancy Hollander and Teri Duncan, played by Shailene Woodley and Jodie Foster.

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: [played by Tahar Rahim] I mean what I say. There’s no evidence. I trust you. You trust me. I am innocent. I am innocent. OK? What do you need to see to believe this?

NANCY HOLLANDER: [played by Jodie Foster] It doesn’t matter what we believe. What matters is what we can prove.

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: Oh, like my interrogators, just like them.

TERI DUNCAN: [played by Shailene Woodley] We know that you’re innocent. We do. But we have to prove that, and we can’t do that unless we see the allegations against you. That’s all we’re asking for.

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: Who do you want to sue? You say government. What does it mean?

NANCY HOLLANDER: There will be three names on the lawsuit: the United States of America, Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush.

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: Sure. Sure. Why not?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from The Mauritanian featuring actors Jodie Foster and Shailene Woodley as the lawyers Nancy Hollander and Teri Duncan, and our next guest, actor Tahar Rahim, who is playing Mohamedou Ould Slahi. For more, we go to Tahar Rahim, speaking to us from Paris.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s an honor to have you with us. We’re also joined, in addition, by Kevin Macdonald, the director. Tahar, talk about your decision to play Mohamedou in this utterly painful film, a tremendous amount of focus on torture at Guantánamo. This wasn’t an easy decision, was it?

TAHAR RAHIM: So-so, because, first of all, when I read the script, I got mistreated — sorry, I made a mistake, because I was thinking of the title, and the title was Guantánamo Diary at that time, and I would only read “Guantánamo,” and I thought it would maybe the same stereotypical part that I got in the past. And knowing Kevin, it couldn’t be possible, so I read the script. I was very happy, as an actor, to get such a beautiful part, with many layers, colors, depth.

And when I read the script, over the course of this reading, I started to realize that I knew it, but it’s a true story, so I felt sad, angry, and I was blown away by his ability to forgive people. And when I finished it, I really wanted to be part of the people who do him justice, because sometimes you make movies for good reason, and sometimes movies are so meaningful that it’s beyond cinema. And this one is beyond cinema.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Mohamedou, you are the subject of this film. You wrote Guantánamo Diary, a magnificent book. First, when you were still in prison, we did a show on Guantánamo Diary, and your diary was read by Dominic West of — the well-known actor from The Wire and The Affair and other films. Can you talk about what this film means to you? And then, Tahar, I’d like you to talk about learning about what Mohamedou is going through from Mohamedou himself. But Mohamedou, what this means to you as you watch this film from Mauritania?

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: So, you know, when you hit rock bottom in Guantánamo Bay, that I did, things can get only better. When you’ve been stifled for so many years, you have no voice. You cannot defend yourself — not even yourself. I’m not even talking about a lawyer defending you. When there is only one single narrative, that is the narrative of the U.S. government, the government against you, you can only get better.

It started with the book. And I was so blessed. It was a best-selling book that has been translated into [inaudible] languages [inaudible] and not any movie, a major motion picture with the finest people of the industry: Kevin Macdonald, Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch and others. And I am so like over the cloud.

And, Amy, this is not my movie. This is the movie of so many people. Some of the people who were kidnapped after 9/11 were tortured to death. They did not have a chance to tell their story. And there are many people everywhere now, as we speak, who are suffering in silence, because there is no rule of law, they were taken away, and they’re in prisons. And this movie is telling their stories.

And we just don’t want just [inaudible] who don’t enjoy the same freedom as you, Amy, and as the people in France and the people in the United Kingdom. We don’t want to be the exception all of the time. We want just to enjoy the same freedom that you do, not being treated outside the rule of law, because a simple citizen like you and me, we don’t have weapons. We don’t have the police. We don’t have the CIA. All we have is the law. And if the law fails us, we very much screwed up.

AMY GOODMAN: The film is very painful but also has such poignant moments, like this one, this clip from The Mauritanian, where Nancy Hollander, the lawyer, played by Jodie Foster, visits Mohamedou, played by Tahar Rahim, in his cell.

NANCY HOLLANDER: [played by Jodie Foster] I’d like you to consider releasing your letters.

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: [played by Tahar Rahim] To a newspaper?

NANCY HOLLANDER: Maybe a book. People need to read your story for themselves. And it’ll put pressure on the government to give us a court date.

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: I’m ready for that.

NANCY HOLLANDER: Would you like me to step outside?


NANCY HOLLANDER: You don’t want to pray?

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: Are you religious now? Why do you care?

NANCY HOLLANDER: I don’t. I care about you.

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: What do you want me to sign, Nancy? Who am I suing today? God?

NANCY HOLLANDER: No one today.

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: Then why are you here?

NANCY HOLLANDER: No reason in particular. I just didn’t want you to be alone.

AMY GOODMAN: In that moment, she reaches out to hold Mohamedou’s hand, Jodie Foster and Tahar Rahim playing Mohamedou Ould Slahi and Nancy Hollander. Nancy Hollander, why did you keep going back to Guantánamo? Fourteen years, Mohamedou was held. Did you think you would see the day when he was freed in 2016?

NANCY HOLLANDER: Amy, I didn’t know whether he would ever be freed, but I had to keep hoping that he would and working in every possible way we could. And when there was nothing happening, which was true for years, encapsulated in that scene, Teri and I took turns going back every couple of months to see Mohamedou, because there was no other way to communicate with him. It’s not like a regular prison where you can get phone calls, in the federal system where there’s email. There’s nothing. So we had to go there to make sure he was OK.

And we spent, you know, days there. Guantánamo is not a place where you go to the prison for an hour and then pick a flight to come home. The flights go down on Sunday and come back on Thursday or Friday. So, we spent hours and hours and days with Mohamedou.

And there were times when he gave up, I believe. When I questioned why he wasn’t praying, it was because I felt that he was depressed. And at one point, he did say, “It’s difficult to have faith here.”

AMY GOODMAN: Mohamedou, what kept you —


AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask, Mohamedou: What kept you going? Your mother died while you were in prison.

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: To be perfectly honest with you, I really don’t know. But, you know, I kept, like, of course, praying, meditating. But the thing that really brought me so much peace was when I decided to completely and utterly forgive everyone. And when I knew, in my cell, inside my cell, that I wished nothing but good life to my torturer and to the people who hurt me, I really felt at peace. And I found later on this saying that I wish I had said, about this Canadian woman of Lebanese descent. She says, “I forgive because [inaudible] forgiven, not because you deserve it, but because I want to move forward,” or something to that effect. And that’s really helped me a lot.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Tahar Rahim, did you communicate with Mohamedou throughout the filming of this? What did it mean for you to meet Mohamedou, to play him?

TAHAR RAHIM: It was very important to meet him first, because I needed to meet him, you know, to make it happen, so I could build my character. But the more I would talk to him, and the more I felt I was meeting with someone extraordinary. So, I started to ask him some questions, like, you know, acting questions. And when we — sorry, Mohamedou, to talk about it. I know it makes you — you know, it’s not cool. But we talked about the darkest moments of his life when he was there, meaning torture. And I could see that it was very hard for him to talk about it and that, you know, he’s still wounded inside. He manages somehow to hide it and to control it. So I stopped. I didn’t want to talk about it ever. And we talked, and we befriended. And I was like, yeah, I’m really grateful to meet someone extraordinary. And I like to compare him to kind of a mix between Mandela and Muhammad Ali. If you get a chance to meet someone that has the same level of wisdom in life, you should take advantage of it. And that’s what I did. So I mostly listened to him. And yeah, it helped me a lot just to build my character, but, as a man, it enriches me.

AMY GOODMAN: Nancy Hollander, you dealt with Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch, who is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. If you can talk about his ultimate decision to resign and what it meant for you to get the full documents of what happened to Mohamedou, and what it meant for him, who fought almost equally as hard to get them?

NANCY HOLLANDER: I didn’t actually meet Stuart Couch until later, but I read that article, “The Conscience of the Colonel,” which is shown in the movie. And in that article is —

AMY GOODMAN: He was the prosecutor.

NANCY HOLLANDER: He was the prosecutor, yes. In that article, I learned — that’s when we first learned several important things. One, that the prosecutor, who was a marine, had decided that he was no longer — I’m sorry, he wasn’t a marine. I believe it was the Army. But he decided that he could not prosecute this case because Mohamedou’s confessions relied on torture. This was an incredible decision by this military man to stand up for what he believed he was supposed to do. He believed that he was trained to support the law, to support the Geneva Conventions, to support the Convention Against Torture. And he did what very few people would do. He walked in, put the file down, and said, “I cannot do this.” And we also learned in that article, for the first time, that they were threatening the death penalty for Mohamedou. We didn’t know any of that until later.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohamedou, we only have 30 seconds, and I wanted to ask you, as you speak from Mauritania — you married an American lawyer. You had an infant. You can’t be together now. Your final message to the world?

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: My final message to the world is that democracy and human rights do work, and people prosper under, [inaudible] and more safe under the rule of law. And dictatorship and authoritarian regimes do not work. That is a fact. And all we want in this part of the world —

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, we’re going to have to leave it.

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: — to have democracy and human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohamedou Ould Slahi, imprisoned at Guantánamo for nearly 14 years; Nancy Hollander, his lawyer, played by actor Jodie Foster; Tahar Rahim, who plays Mohamedou in the film; as well as Kevin Macdonald. I’m Amy Goodman.

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