It is no secret I love true stories, but The Mauritanian is one fact-based film I found extremely disturbing to watch. The movie opens with German educated Mohamedou Ould Slahi returning (from Canada) to his homeland – the Islamic Republic of Mauritania (a country in Northwest Africa made up of 90% Sahara Desert with Arabic as its official language) to visit his sick mother. At the onset of the film he is soon apprehended and shuttled to a Jordanian prison before being transported briefly to a U.S. army base in Afghanistan on route to Guantánamo Bay Detention Facility where he is detained for the next 14 years of his life without charge of a single offence.
Nicknamed ‘Guantánamo’s Darkest Secret’ Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald delivers another winner with his piercingly accurate portrayal of the unimaginable torture experienced by Mohamedou Ould Slahi (brilliantly played by Tahar Rahim) at the hands of his Gitmo captors who subjected him to unspeakable physical, emotional, and psychological abuse year after year after year. The vast brutality involved endless beatings, many excruciating ‘stress position’ episodes (aka submission positions that place the human body in such a way that a great amount of weight is placed on just one or two muscles for an extended period of time), reoccurring sleep deprivation, body shackling, blindfolding, mock executions, threats, frightening waterboarding, horrific music torture, sexual assaults, prolonged terrifying interrogations, ongoing freezing temperatures, cruel psychological torment… The list goes on and on – all done without a single explanation of why.
This gripping prison drama is deeply troubling but surprisingly inspirational. As the story unfolds it becomes increasingly clear federal agents suspect Mohamedou of masterminding the 911 attacks, the bombing of LAX… yet no incriminating evidence exists outside of very few unsubstantiated associations that are so distance and far removed they are considered longshots at best. This film with its weighted A-Listers Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays strict military prosecutor Lt Colonel Stuart Couch) and Jodie Foster (who plays Mohamedou’s crusading lawyer Nancy Hollander) is well worth the watch. As expected Mohamedou confesses to a number of crimes including plotting to blow up Canada’s CN Tower among many other terrible felonies – but all his confessions are made under extreme duress as attorney Hollander exposes via her tireless fight to set him free against all odds. Witnessing the punishing harm Mohamedou underwent it is so evident that any living person would make similar false admissions if placed in this situation.
The reason this movie (based on Mohamedou’s bestselling memoir entitled Guantánamo Diary) is so unsettling is its realistic representation of events. A true testament to the tremendous talent displayed by French/Algerian actor Tahar Rahim whose very convincing performance is so authentic and powerful it leaves audiences entirely enthralled in the story. Viewers move beyond just watching from the sidelines and instead bear witness to Mohamedou’s caustic pain and fear; walking silently alongside the massively palpable injustice of it all. Intense roles like this one, that require the actor to be completely engrossed in the character are extremely difficult on the performers’ psyche. Therefore it is beyond shocking that ‘The Mauritanian’ failed to garner a single Oscar nomination even though this critically acclaimed film has received much deserved praise (e.g. BAFTAs with 5 nods including Best Picture and Best Lead Actor for Tahar Rahim; Golden Globes with Jodie Foster recently winning Best Supporting Actress… and more to come). How sad. Director Kevin MacDonald most likely foresaw the risk in making such a controversial film stating, ‘It’s not a political film. It’s a humanistic film.’ I fully agree with his observation but obviously the Academy did not – snubbing the film completely to perhaps avoid dealing with the touchy subject surrounding the war on terrorism. Shame on them. Tahar Rahim deserves an Oscar nod at a minimum for this role, and perhaps even the win.
On this point, for the most part this picture is a demoralizing journey that winds through the American legal system. But just as the alarming accounts of unlawful transgressions against an innocent man are at the apex, this film takes a rousing turn that manages to restore the audiences’ faith – not in the justice system but in the human spirit. This now brings us to the take-away message of this profound movie.
It’s not about revenge, retaliation, or reprisal as you might expect. It’s about – resilience. The life lesson of this film is how to mentally and emotionally cope with a crisis that is out of one’s control. Resilience does not mean an individual is exempt from suffering or distress, it just means having the ability to withstand extreme adversity and somehow bounce back from difficult life events. It’s the ability to use one’s mental processes and behavior to protect the self from the negative effects of toxic stressors (e.g. prolonged adverse experiences). Science shows that females tend to be more resilient compared with their male counterparts, which adds to the beauty of this story. Although Mohamedou would be justified in seeking the highest level of retribution possible, he transcends. A surprising turn of events given the circumstances. Instead of becoming consumed with bitterness and hatred he sincerely forgives his tormentors who persecuted him mercilessly for years. Ascendance vs Defeatism – ‘Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.’ – Oscar Wilde. Words to live by.
As dramatized in the film, Mohamedou was finally released October 17th 2016. He wrote 4 books during his imprisonment at Gitmo including one about finding happiness in a hopeless place. As the movie-credits roll, audiences are treated to adorable vignettes of the real-life Mahamedou Ould Slahi, who is so light-hearted, smart, loveable, and with such a bubbly personality that shines brightly through along with his witty humor and many endearing mannerisms. Despite all the agonizing treatment he experienced his lovely clever character and warm personable qualities rise above it all. He seems truly incapable of harboring any residual negative feelings. So much so, Mohamedou even befriended one of his guards – Steve Wood, who travelled to Mauritania in 2018 to visit him. The two unlikely chums continue to chat regularly to this day. Wow. By the way some eye-opening statistics about Gitmo are revealed at the end of this film so be sure not to miss them.
P.S. I travelled to Jordan with the family (son Oje, daughter Athena, niece Virgillia) and flew into the city of Amman where Mohamedou Ould Slahi was held for eight months before being handed over to American authorities. Jordan is to the Middle East as Switzerland is to Europe – Neutral. That said, there are lots of reminders of security risks (e.g. armed vehicles on the road with machine guns on the roof, regular checkpoint…) so you sure wouldn’t want to break the law in this region or be suspected of doing so. All the same, it is a safe travel destination and so worth the visit. Some of the country’s stunning sites I highly recommend and ones we enjoyed include floating in the Dead Sea, hiking to Petra, and visiting the protected Wadi Rum desert where a number of movies have been filmed (e.g. Lawrence of Arabia with Peter O’Toole /Omar Sharif; The Martian with Matt Damon…). Magnificent. I hope to return one day.