'The Mauritanian' Review: A humanistic film that’s far removed from the run-of-the-mill Hollywood films about terrorism

A Potpourri of Vestiges Feature 

The Mauritanian

When the noted French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim received the script for “The Mauritanian” he was expecting another run-of-the-mill Hollywood script propagating a familiar sense of Islamophobia. For the last decade ever since his breakthrough performance in the celebrated French filmmaker Jacques Audiard’s prison drama “A Prophet”, Hollywood had been offering the same kind of roles over and over again. On opening the script when he came across the world “Guantanamo” his apprehensions were more or less confirmed. But to his great surprise he discovered something very different. The character offered to him, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, is a real person who isn’t a terrorist but was simply accused of being one.

Mohamedou, a Mauritanian man on whose memoir the film is based, was deemed guilty by the US authorities though some vague association. As a result, he was imprisoned for over 14 years without any trial in Guantanamo Bay where he was constantly subjected to torture and abuse by US soldiers. He was finally released in October 2016. In Rahim’s words, “It’s the first time I see a Hollywood movie with a sympathetic Muslim at the centre.” And Rahim, to his credit, plays Mohamedou as a gentle soul who somehow keeps his sanity intact despite years of horrific treatment. The Mauritanian, directed by Kevin Macdonald, stars the legendary Jodie Foster in the role of the no-nonsense defence lawyer who fights for his release with Benedict Cumberbatch essaying the part of the military prosecutor Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch.

There is no denying that a lot changed after 9/11 as the world became far more paranoid than it had ever been. Soon after the tragic events of September 11, the western world started witnessing a dramatic rise in Islamophobia. Now, according to Wikipedia, “Islamophobia is the fear of, hatred of, or prejudice against the religion of Islam or Muslims in general, especially when seen as a geopolitical force or the source of terrorism.” Clearly, the increase in Islamophobia could be attributed to Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda. Hollywood, of course, played its part though its stereotypical portrayal of Muslims and Islam in countless films. And it wasn’t until Mira Nair’s 2012 film “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” that the issue got properly addressed by Hollywood.  

On the other hand, Bollywood filmmaker Kabir Khan highlighted the issue in his 2009 film “New York” though the character of Sameer Sheikh, essayed by John Abraham, who Sam gets arrested and detained for a period of nine months as a suspected terrorist. Though he is eventually released due to lack of evidence, the impact of being detained and tortured permanently changes him in ways which are difficult to comprehend for those surrounding him. A couple of years prior to the Kabir Khan film, the noted Pakistani director Shoaib Mansoor made “Khuda Kay Liye” which presents a graphic account of a man getting detained and tortured for a year at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp due to his Islamic background after the US authorities receive a false complaint from his neighbor.

But, in many ways, The Mauritanian stands out in its depiction of the atrocities that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have undergone over the years. For, Mohamedou’s 2015 memoir titled “Guantanamo Diary” is a testament to what he had to experience for 14 years of his life. He wrote the book in 2005 in Guantanamo Bay but each page had to be submitted to military censors. A total of 2,500 redactions were made before releasing the manuscript to his attorneys seven years later. So, the 2015 edition which went on to become an international bestseller was heavily redacted. He was even prohibited from receiving a copy of his published book while imprisoned. It was only in 2017 that it was republished with redactions fully removed. While the Biden administration has declared its intention to shut down Guantanamo Bay detention camp there is no certainty that it is going to happen any time soon. But, Mohamedou’s story of redemption certainly gives one hope.

The Mauritanian is far removed from the run-of-the-mill Hollywood films we have become accustomed to watching with the theme of global terrorism at its core. Kevin Macdonald and his team of writers offer something refreshingly different. Here is a deeply humanistic film which isn’t afraid to question the dubious role played by the US authorities in destroying the lives of innocent people like Mohamedou. As a matter of fact, it exposes how both the Bush as well as the Obama administrations kept prolonging Mohamedou’s ordeal at Guantanamo Bay. Perhaps, it’s for this reason the film didn’t find much traction with the members of The Academy despite receiving multiple Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations. The performance by Tahar Rahim (who interestingly stars as the con artist and serial killer Charles Sobhraj in the Netflix series “The Serpent”) certainly deserved an Oscar nomination for portraying the part of Mohamedou Ould Slahi with such great conviction. Also, the deeply nuanced performances by Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch deserved more attention.

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your valuable thoughts are highly appreciated!

A version of this article was first published in The Daily Guardian.

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