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Home   /   Movie Review: The Mauritanian (2021)

A first hand look at the abuse experienced by the people at Guantanimo Bay told by Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Before going to view The Mauritanian, I had no idea what it was about or what to expect. I certainly didn’t expect to learn about the impact and events of 9/11 (I was one and a half at the time) for Muslim people and about how there are still people facing one of the hardest punishments from an event that changed history, by being imprisoned and trapped inside Guantanamo Bay

But that’s exactly what this film is. A dramatized-documentary hybrid, following the main character and real-life person, Mohamedou Ould Slahi (played by Tahar Rahim in this) as he is imprisoned in the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, for his part or believed part, in the 9/11 terror attacks without getting a trial in court (which is considered illegal). The film, graphically, shows the horrendous treatment that Slahi and the other prisoners encountered daily, for 13 years in his case and for some, continuing to this day. It also follows the story of Nancy Holland and Teri Duncan, his lawyers, as they try to get him a trial, becoming his defence attorney. In 2008 they finally got him a court trial, seven years after his initial imprisonment (in November 2001) however that’s not where this film, or his story ends. The film also follows the story of Stuart Couch, a commanding officer in the US Marine’s, who was hired by the US to fight against Slahi’s case based on personal connections to the terror attacks. However, through his journey in the film, Couch sees the torture that the prisoners are put through and changes his position in the narrative. 

The film itself is amazingly casted. Naturally, it’s been cast with Hollywood actors to bring in audiences, but after hearing the director Kevin Macdonald in a Q&A after the film, Cumberbatch’s team had already bought rights to the film, as he felt so strongly connected to the role. Alongside Cumberbatch, playing Couch, the film also stars Jodie Foster as Holland, Shailene Woodley as Teri, Zachary Levi, and Matthew Marsh, as well as French actors Tahar Rahim and Denis Ménochet (as Emmanuel). All the actors gave their roles all their attention and showcased their talent. The performances from Rahim as well as Foster really made me emotional, and you can see how important these stories were to them when they are portraying them. The dramatic change in journey from Couch is played brilliantly by Cumberbatch (in my opinion) who brings the audience along from hating him in the early scenes (and many during the duration of the film as well) to having sympathy for him, at the end and seeing that change is just as powerful as the rest of the film even though it might not be as obvious when watching.  

In my opinion The Mauritanian is an extremely powerful film and will bring light to some of the horrible, unhuman, and tragic events that are still happening today. It made me think about life in a more black and white way, changing how I viewed the events of 9/11 after hearing only one side essentially (typically the white western side from American TV, or that one history class we did in high school) and seeing the physical violence play out on the big screen, certainly had a lasting impression on me. Even almost a week later as I write this, I can still remember one particularly powerful and horrendous scene any time I think about this film. (It’s  taken me this long, to be in a position where I can write this review without being extremely emotional thinking about the film.) Macdonald wanted to keep certain parts of Slahi’s book (Guantánamo Diary– released in 2015) and experiences realistic, which adds to the horror of some scenes, knowing this happened to real people in the modern world, mainly going undocumented in any form. Another thing that added to this powerful film is that I didn’t know what it was about and therefore had no expectations. The experience of blindly going to see a film like this is one that really adds to the power and realism. I was living in the moment with what was happening, and it held my attention for the whole 2 hours. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, living and reacting to the events, being scared for Slahi for most of the film, crying when he was asking for his mother and experiencing his joys, when he got a court hearing or that ending scene when he gets out of the taxi. 

Would I recommend this film? Absolutely. I would read up about the film in more detail first though, or at least go to it with a bit of knowledge as I had no idea that Guantanamo Bay existed or places like it, it’s just not spoken about in the UK (and I imagine not much in the US either). I think that might help, as then you’ll have a basic knowledge of the main location of the film and what happens there. The violence on screen, however realistic, could be triggering to some viewers. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be as realistic as it, but it’s just a consideration for future audiences and something I would have loved to have been aware of before viewing. I am really interested to read the book as well, so I can hear more stories about Slahi’s experiences as clearly not everything can be put into a 2-hour film.. It’s currently on Amazon if readers of this want to view it. This Mauritanian is one of my top films this year and one that I will suggest when people ask me for recommendations. 

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July 2024