In 2002, Mohamedou Ould Salahi arrived in Guantanamo Bay prison, Cuba, deemed by the Americans to be the mastermind behind 9/11. It would be 14 years before Salahi proved his innocence, eventually returning to his home country of Mauritania.
The Mauritanian tells the story of Salahi (Tahar Rahim), his lawyers Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), and their fight for justice against a country seeking vengeance for the September 11 attacks.
Salahi, who joined the Mujahideen fighting in Afghanistan to overthrow the Communist government of the 1980s, trained at Al-Qaida training camps before denouncing the group in the 1990s and returning to his studies in Germany. Despite this, he was still captured in his native Mauritania, spending months in a jail in Jordon before arriving in Guantanamo Bay as the highest-value detainee on the base.
The film is based on the novel written by Salahi, Guantanamo Diary, during his time in Guantanamo which was published in 2015, a year before his eventual release from the camp.
Rahim’s portrayal of Salahi is emotional and he always readjusts our focus back to Salahi in a box cell on a base in a foreign country. We are confronted with the true horrors Salahi faced as he complies with interrogations and confesses to activities he had no involvement in to stop the torrent torture conflicted on him.
Scenes of torture are distressing to watch but are relatively dramatised. Its tough to watch the apparent lack of limit on what human beings can do to each other. Rahim’s performance is gripping and uncomfortable. It’s even harder to watch and comprehend knowing the torture portrayed on screen actually happened to a feeling, living human being.
You get a little lost in the pro bono work of his lawyers Hollander and Duncan. In what is an important part of history to remember, the film overcomplicates the true narrative by focusing more on the complicated legal technicalities than the human life at stake. Don’t get me wrong, Foster’s portrayal of the hard-working (although icy) lawyer is incredibly convincing, but the film does risk becoming too much about Hollander and not enough about the main character- the Mauritanian: Salahi.
The legal focus is understandably necessary in terms of context and understanding the indefinite imprisonment of what could be an innocent man. However, it becomes confusing to keep up when we’re introduced to prosecutor Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Having known a pilot who was killed during the attack on the World Trade Centre, Couch’s quest for revenge is apparent. However, he is faced with the tough dilemma of avenging the death of his friend and the thousands of others killed while finding evidence detailing what exactly goes on in Guantanamo Bay at the hands of the US Army Officials and the government.
Most distracting about Cumberbatch’s portrayal is the strange southern accent that comes every time he opens his mouth. Couch’s realisation and horror at the true functioning of Guantanamo was, naturally pivotal in real life, but almost predictable on screen- the bad guy changes to not a bad guy.
The Mauritanian is a poignant portrayal of the true horror of the war on terror. It’s an emotional and sometimes uncomfortable reality to face and a history that is not willingly remembered – and is still grappled with even today. On one trip to visit her client, Hollander’s remarks of Guantanamo Bay one day becoming a tourist attraction is a stark reminder that we cannot allow the horror of Guantanamo to fade from living memory.
Feature Image Credit- Brittle Paper