Legal drama "The Mauritanian" revisits the incarceration and interrogation of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a Muslim detained on suspicion of terrorist ties. He was held without charge for 14 years before his release in 2017. The new movie opens in theaters Feb. 12 and will be available on demand on March 2.
Kevin Macdonald is the Oscar-winning director behind the camera. He won his award for "One Day in September," his classic 1999 documentary about the terror attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and later made the Idi Amin biopic "The Last King of Scotland," which won Forrest Whitaker a Best Actor Oscar in 2007.
"The Mauritanian" has already earned two Golden Globes nominations: one for Tahar Rahim in the Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture-Drama category and the other for Jodie Foster in the Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture.
Rahim plays Salahi, while Foster plays Nancy Hollander, the attorney who filed a writ of habeas corpus on the prisoner's behalf. Benedict Cumberbatch is Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, the Marine lawyer tasked with convicting Salahi. The movie is based on Salahi's 2015 book "Guantánamo Diary," a memoir inspired by the letters he wrote to Hollander to share his story.
Note to anyone who's not a regular viewer of courtroom dramas: Habeas corpus is a legal principle that dates back to English common law. If a person is arrested, they have a right to know the exact charges against them. If the state can't make a criminal charge, a prisoner cannot be detained.
The movie focuses on each of the real-life characters' stories and aims to give audiences three different perspectives on the case, including those of the prisoner, his civil rights attorney and the military prosecutor tasked with finding charges that will yield a conviction.
The lack of charges against Salahi is the crux of the story here. Will the government find evidence to support a conviction? How much is a confession worth when it's extracted by means of torture?
We last checked in with Kevin Macdonald in 2015 for the release of "Black Sea," an excellent submarine heist thriller about World War II Nazi gold. The movie stars Jude Law and is currently streaming on Netflix.
Military.com: "The Mauritanian" is a tough story to tell, and I imagine it was a hard movie to get funded. What inspired you to make the commitment to bring it to the screen?
Kevin Macdonald: "I certainly got obsessed with this. As a filmmaker or a writer, you often need to go to a level of insanity in terms of the amount of time that you will spend on something in order to tell stories that are not necessarily easy commercial prospects. We had a hard script to get right, because we're telling three different perspectives on the same thing. We're telling the perspective of the prisoner Mohamedou, we're telling the perspective of his human rights lawyer, and then we're giving the perspective of the military prosecutor Stu Couch.”
"We had to get the balance of all those three things and to explain what is quite a complex habeas case," Macdonald continued. "He was imprisoned without trial, and we have to get to why that is wrong. There are quite a lot of big issues to grapple with and try to dramatize in a simple way in a two-hour movie. That was the hard thing, and it did take a lot of time. And we also had to cast it and get the money together."
Military.com: Some of us remember the headlines when Salahi’s case made the news in the waning days of the Bush administration, but the story of what happened at Guantanamo seems to have faded from our collective memory. How do you think viewers should approach this movie?
Macdonald: "What I think is going to be most interesting and maybe challenging for an American audience is to see things from the perspective of a prisoner, somebody who has been accused of being involved in terrorism and has been picked up because of associations that he has with people who are terrorists.
"And yet, there is no actual evidence that he did anything wrong, and years and years and years go by, and still there is no evidence. I think most people are unaware of that legal scandal and that injustice, because they think that because he's picked up and he knew somebody who knew somebody who was an organizer of 9/11, or because he went to Afghanistan in 1989-90 and joined al-Qaida, therefore, he's responsible for 9/11.
"As we all know, at the time the U.S. government was supporting al-Qaida in 1990-91, providing arms and money. Mohamedou was trained by an American military adviser when he was in Afghanistan, and he was not a part of that organization later. I think most people in America will be surprised by these things. The film asks you to look at this man who's accused of terrorism and see another human being who's being unjustly imprisoned, and for you to relate to him on the human level."
Military.com: A lot of Americans are going to have a hard time relating to someone with Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s past.
Macdonald: "A key way for an American audience to look at this is through the eyes of Stuart Couch, who's an extraordinary individual. He's a Republican. He's a Christian. He had a long military career that started when he was 18 years old. Stuart realized that what was being done to Mohamedou, and other people who were then in Guantanamo, was utterly unconstitutional and utterly against his Christian principles. Therefore, he stood up and he said, 'This shouldn't be happening.' He resigned from the case, went to the press and got into a lot of trouble."
"Now looking back, he feels like a hero. He actually stood up when everyone was going blindly in one direction and thinking that any association with terrorists means that you're an enemy and need to be treated in the most severe manner. When you're standing in the middle of that river and the flow is all one way, it's very hard to decide that you're going to go the other way. and to say, 'This is wrong.'
"That story is central to the film. The movie I wanted to make was one which had different perspectives in it, and which treats everybody's perspective with human dignity. There's no, there's no obvious bad guy. This is not a film, which says, 'George Bush's White House was terrible.' We've all heard that and don't need to hear it again.
"This movie is about how different individuals cope with a situation like this. And they're all rounded characters. They're all humanized. "
Military.com: Still, there are people who have never allowed for the possibility that Salahi really was innocent and believe that his treatment ruined any potential case against him. I get the sense that Couch may be in that camp.
Macdonald: "At the end of the movie in his conversation with Nancy Hollander, Couch says that if evidence emerges that Mohamedou was involved, he'd stick the needle in his arm himself. The point of the movie is not to say that this guy is innocent. I believe he's innocent, because I know there's no evidence against him.
"The law should be upheld, and … when we have no evidence, a person should not be sitting in a prison somewhere, illegally taken from his own country. I know that people have suspicions about this guy, and people may still have suspicions, but it's a very different thing to have suspicions than it is to say that he's guilty of something.
"Most reasonable people would look at this and say, 'There's no reason why he should ever be held for more than a day.' The government spent millions of dollars trying to find evidence. Agents traveled the world looking for it, and they didn't find the thing."
Military.com: Those suspicions seem to be based on decisions that Salahi made as a college student at a time when no one imagined that al-Qaida would one day be our enemy. Many Americans would never give him a pass even if he thought he was on our side during al-Qaida training that happened a decade before 9/11.
Macdonald: "I think there is a really unhealthy lack of compassion in our culture, a lack of understanding and a leaping to conclusions and a desire to vilify people. Maybe it's something new brought on more by social media than anything else.
"What my film is doing is just a very simple thing and trying to humanize this person. Imagine if you were in his shoes. For anyone reading your articles and thinking that we're glorifying or sympathizing with a terrorist or we're sympathizing with a terrorist, think about Lt. Col. Couch. We have to uphold the rule of law. When you bend the rule of law, you breed nightmares like Guantanamo, which is still a thorn in the side of the U.S. government today. When they bent the rule of law and used torture, all the evidence that they thought they had against these people, even people who probably did do terrible things, is not valid in the court of law.
"One of the reasons it's so hard to close the prison at Guantanamo is that there are people there who almost certainly did bad things, but the evidence that there is against them is void because of the torture that was perpetrated on them."
Military.com: You started your career as a documentarian. "The Mauritanian" seems to be in the genre of a legal thriller, but you don’t force the reality of the story to exactly follow all the rules of the genre.
Macdonald: "We're slightly playing a trick on the audience, because the movie plays like a thriller, but it doesn't conform to the genre. In this story, there are surprises along the way. To me, that's more interesting than just ticking all the boxes of what a legal thriller should be like.
"You start off thinking it's one thing, and then you realize toward the end that this is not that film. Hopefully, it's a different film that has affected you emotionally, profoundly, and raised some really interesting issues, and I'll feel like I've done my job."
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