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Mario Bautista, has been with the entertainment industry for more than 4 decades. He writes regular columns for People's Journal and Malaya.

Apr 16, 2021



‘THE MAURITANIAN’ is the real life story of Mohamedou Slahi, based on his 2015 memoir, “Guantanamo Diary”, recounting his experiences as a prisoner held for 14 years without any charge or trial in the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba. 

It won the Golden Globe best supporting actress award for Jodie Foster in her role as Slahi’s feisty defense lawyer and it got five nominations in the British Awards, but it was totally ignored by the Oscars. 

In November 2001, Slahi goes home to his folks in Mauritania to attend the wedding of a cousin. The cops invite him for questioning and he is never seen again. 

In 2004, a German newspaper reports that dozens of men have been missing after they were brought in for questioning. They are detained in Guantanamo but have not been charged with any crime. 

Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and her associate, Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), take Slahi’s case and become his pro-bono lawyers. They are allowed to visit Slahi, who insist he’s not guilty of any crime. 

As a younger man, he got an engineering scholarship and left Mauritania to study in Germany. In the late 80s, he had some training with the Al Qaeda in Afghanistan as he was inspired by their role in war of the Afghans then against Communist Russia. 

The U.S.A. itself supported the Mujahideen’s defense of Afghanistan then against the Soviets. After that war, he went back to his life in Germany but still kept in touch with his friends and relatives who remained in Al Qaeda. 

It’s because of this that he is accused of being a terrorist who helped in carrying out the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

For Hollander, the question is: does the U.S. government have enough evidence to detain him? If so, then they should officially bring him to court. If not, then they have to give back his freedom. 

The lawyer is not interested in Slahi as a victim, but just an example of the American government running amuck and trampling on the human rights of other people who just languish in jail.

On the government’s side, Lt. Col. Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Marine lawyer, is assigned to prosecute Slahi. 

Initially, he buys the premise that the military intelligence gave him: that Slahi is the main recruiter of terrorists in Germany and the September 11 hijackers. It will be easy to officially charge him. 

The film then becomes a legal thriller where Hollander and Couch present their respective sides about Slahi’s case. 

Hollander and Duncan have to face lots of obstacles imposed by the U.S. government against them. Boxes and boxes of documents given to them are blotted out with black ink. 

But it’s not only them who experience this but also Couch. 

In his own investigation, he faces a lot of government opposition and he realizes that it’s also hiding something, violating international law, torturing the prisoners and trampling on the right and values that the U.S. Constitution holds dear. 

Couch is a Christian with high moral values so the conspiracy he discovers turns him off.

The film is from Director Kevin Macdonald, who did “The Last King of Scotland” that won Forrest Whitaker his Oscar in 2006 as Idi Amin. 

It’s reminiscent of the acclaimed film “The Report” by Scott Burns in 2019 starring Adam Driver as a senate staffer who investigates the CIA’s use of torture after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

The film achieves its goal to raise awareness about the ordeal that political prisoners experience in Guantanamo. All the cruelty and brutality they are subjected to in the name of national security and patriotism can surely be quite revolting. 

Slahi is tortured not only physically but also emotionally and mentally. He is even sexually humiliated and also threatened to have his mother arrested and imprisoned with him.  

This is all quite effective because of Tahar Rahim’s exceptionally convincing portrayal of Slahi. The suffering, pain and overall exhaustion he goes through can be so real and palpable as you watch him on screen. 

Rahim starred as a real life serial killer in the British crime thriller, “The Serpent”, and he’s totally different there. 

In fairness to Jodie Foster, she holds her own as the committed lawyer who fights for due process and imparts a moral outrage at what she discovers about her client’s plight that dragged on for years. 

Tahar and Rahim get adequate support from both Cumberbatch and Woodley. But there’s no doubt that “The Mauritanian” really belongs to Rahim who is so sympathetic in his interrogation and torture scenes and his crippling solitude in his cramped and claustrophobic cell. 

At first, he even jokes with the guards, finds a friend in an unnamed inmate he doesn’t even see, and we see his gut-wrenching transformation as he becomes beaten and broken after years of imprisonment. Too bad he was not nominated in the Oscars. 

Maybe because another Muslim actor is also nominated, Riz Ahmed in “Sound of Metal”. So there’s an Asian nominee for “Minari” and two British guys, Anthony Hopkins and Gary Oldman (both past winners) but the winner will be the posthumous choice, the late Chadwick Boseman.

Going back to “Mauritanian”, the scenes in Guantanamo were shot with a smaller screen exposure to visually convey the sense of confinement that Slahi endures.  

We tore up when Slahi finally gets to speak to the judge after he is ultimately given his day in court and when the real Slahi is shown later in the ending.

As a viewer, it’s normal for us to side with the Americans for what the terrorists did to them. We all want retribution and vengeance, but the rampant disregard for human rights in the pursuit of justice can also be so disconcerting. 

The film reminds us not only of the injustices the U.S. has done in its fight on terrorism but also the fact that there are still prisoners held captive at Guantanamo up to this day.