Life Detained

The Mauritanian director Kevin Macdonald talks with Jack Moulton about researching Guantanamo Bay’s top secrets, Tahar Rahim’s method-acting techniques, the ingenuity of humanity during the pandemic, and his favorite Scottish films.

You’ve got to understand that for a Muslim man like Tahar, this role has a much greater significance than it does for you or me.” —⁠Kevin Macdonald

It’s not uncommon for a director to release two films in one year, but Academy-Award winning—for his 1999 documentary One Day in September—director Kevin Macdonald is guilty of this achievement multiple times. Ten years ago, he released his first crowd-sourced documentary Life in a Day and the period epic The Eagle within months of each other. A decade on, he’s done it again.

The Scottish director (and grandson of legendary filmmaker Emeric Pressburger) released both his Life in a Day follow-up and the legal drama The Mauritanian this month. The latter tells the story of Guantanamo Bay detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi (sometimes written as Salahi), who was held and tortured in the notorious US detention center for fourteen years without a charge. The film, adapted from Slahi’s 2015 memoir Guantánamo Diary, features Jodie Foster and Shailene Woodley as his defense attorneys Nancy Hollander and Teri Duncan, with Benedict Cumberbatch, who also signed on as the film’s producer, playing prosecutor Lt. Stuart Couch.

Benedict Cumberbatch as prosecutor Lt. Stuart Couch in The Mauritanian.
Benedict Cumberbatch as prosecutor Lt. Stuart Couch in The Mauritanian.

The Mauritanian also introduces French star Tahar Rahim to a global audience, in the role of Slahi. “The ensemble is excellent across the board,” writes Zach Gilbert, “while Tahar Rahim is best in show overall, bringing honorable heart and humanity to his role [of] the titular mistreated prisoner.”

Much of the story is filmed as an office-based legal thriller involving thick files, intense conversations, and Jodie Foster’s very bright lipstick. Macdonald expertly employs aspect ratio to signify narrative shifts into scenes recreating Slahi’s vivid recollections of torture and his achingly brief conversations with unseen fellow detainees.

Qualifying for this year’s awards season due to extended deadlines, The Mauritanian has already earned Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress for Rahim and Foster respectively. Slahi remains unable to travel due to no-fly lists, but he was a valuable resource to the production, providing an accurate and rare depiction of a sympathetic Muslim character in an American film.

It was the eve of Life in a Day 2020's Sundance Film Festival premiere when we Zoomed with Macdonald. Behind him, we spied a full set of the Italian posters for Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic Blow-Up. As it turns out, he’s not a fan of the film—only the posters—so we got him talking about his desert-island top ten after a few questions about his new film.

The attention to detail on Guantanamo Bay in The Mauritanian is impressive. There are procedures depicted that you rarely see on-screen. How did you conduct your research?
Obviously Guantanamo Bay is a place which the American government spends a great deal of effort keeping secret. It was important to Mohamedou and me that we depicted the reality of the procedures as accurately as we possibly could. That research came primarily from Mohamedou who has an incredible memory. He drew sketches and made videos of himself lying down in spaces and showing how he could stretch half his arm out [in his cell]. There are a lot of photographs on the internet of Guantanamo Bay which are [fake] and others are from a later period because the place developed a lot over the years since it started in 2002 and Mohamedou was able to [identify] which photos were rooms, courtyards and medical centers he had been in.

Director Kevin Macdonald on set with Jodie Foster.
Director Kevin Macdonald on set with Jodie Foster.

How did you approach creating an honest representation of the graphic torture scenes, without putting the audience through it as well?
Whenever films about this period are [made] they’re always from the point of view of the Americans and this time we’re with Mohamedou. You can’t underestimate the fact that there have really been no mainstream American cinematic portrayals of Muslims at all, so in portraying a sympathetic Muslim character who’s also accused of terrorism, you’re pushing some hot buttons with people. It was important that those people who are uncomfortable with him understand why he confessed to what he confessed.

Everything you see in the film is what happened; the only difference is that they weren’t wearing masks of cats and Shrek-like creatures, they wore Star Wars masks of Yoda and Luke Skywalker in this very perverse fucked-up version of American pop culture. Obviously, we couldn’t get the rights to those. Actually, I don’t feel that it is graphic. There is more violence in your average Marvel movie. It’s psychologically disturbing because you’re experiencing this disorientating lighting, the [heavy-metal] music, and he’s being told his mother’s going to be raped and he’s flashing back to his childhood. To be empathizing with this character and then to see them to be so cruelly treated is so deeply disturbing.

How did you prepare Tahar Rahim for his convincing portrayal of such intense pain and suffering?
Tahar went through a great deal of discomfort in order to achieve it. He felt that to give a performance that had any chance of being truthful, he needed to experience a little bit of what Mohamedou had suffered, so throughout the movie he would insist on wearing real shackles which made his leg bleed and give him blisters. I would plead with him to put on rubber ones and he would say “no, I have to do this so I’m not just play-acting”.

He starved himself for about three weeks leading up to a torture sequence—he had lost an awful amount of weight and he was really unsteady on his legs. I was very worried about it and I got him nutritionists and doctors but he was determined to stick with that. You’ve got to understand that for a Muslim man like Tahar, this role has a much greater significance than it does for you or me. He felt a great weight of responsibility to do this correctly, not just for Mohamedou, but he was speaking for the whole Muslim world in a way.

Jodie Foster and Shailene Woodley as defense attorneys in The Mauritanian.
Jodie Foster and Shailene Woodley as defense attorneys in The Mauritanian.

What compels you to study this period in time?
Mohamedou was released a couple of weeks before Trump came to power in 2016, so the story is still ongoing for him. He’s still being harassed by the American government and he’s not allowed to travel because he’s on these no-fly lists. I didn’t want to make a movie that was saying “George W. Bush is terrible”. We’ve been there, we’ve done that. This is looking back with a little bit of distance and saying “here’s the principles that we can learn from when you sidestep the rule of law” —⁠what it takes to stand up like Lt. Stuart Couch did when everyone else around you is going along with something that’s really terrible.

You see that around Trump with the choices within the Republican Party to stand up and say they’re going to sacrifice their careers to do the right thing. It is a hard thing when there’s this mass hysteria in the air. The basic principles that the lawyer [characters] are representing is not about analyzing and replaying what happened after 9/11, they’re directly related in a bigger way to the world we all inhabit.

Did anything surprise you in how your subjects for Life in a Day 2020 addressed the pandemic?
One of the most affecting characters in the film is an American who lost his home and business because of the pandemic, so he’s living in his car. He seems very depressed when you meet him for the first time, then later he’s telling us there’s something that’s giving him joy in his life. He brings out all these drones with these cameras on them and puts on this VR headset and loses himself by flying through the trees. I thought that was such a great metaphor for the way that human ingenuity has enabled us to survive and thrive during the pandemic.

I get the feeling of resilience from [the film]. This is a more thoughtful film than the original one. I see this as a movie of [us] being beware of our susceptibility to disease and ultimately to death and mortality, [and] how we’ve found these consolations as human beings. To me, it’s a really profound thing. It also speaks to the main theme of the film which is how we’re all so similar, same as The Mauritanian. It’s confronting you with all these people and saying we fundamentally all share the basic things that underpin our lives and the differences between us are much less important than the things we have in common.

Let’s go from Life in a Day to your life in film. What’s a Scottish film that you love but you feel is very overlooked or underrated?
That’s really hard because there aren’t many Scottish films and there aren’t many good ones. Gregory’s Girl is the greatest Scottish film ever made—it’s the bible for life for me. That’s very well-known, so I would have to say Bill Forsyth’s previous film That Sinking Feeling, which was self-funded and made on 16mm black-and-white. It has some of the same actors and characters as Gregory’s Girl in it. Or my grandfather Emeric Pressberger’s film I Know Where I’m Going! which is a rare romantic comedy set in Scotland.

John Gordon Sinclair and Dee Hepburn in Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl (1980).
John Gordon Sinclair and Dee Hepburn in Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl (1980).

Which film made you want to become a filmmaker?
I think it was Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, which is one of the top five documentaries ever made and in my top ten desert-island movies.

What else is in your desert-island top ten?
Oh god, don’t! I knew you were going to ask me that. I’ll give a few. I would say there would have to be something by Preston Sturges—maybe The Lady Eve or The Palm Beach Story. There would have to be a film written by my grandfather, so probably The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which is the best British film ever made. There would have to be Singin’ in the Rain, which is the most purely joyful film I’ve ever seen. There would probably be The Battle of Algiers, which I rewatched recently and was an inspiration on The Mauritanian. Citizen Kane I also rewatched in anticipation of watching Mank, of which I was very disappointed. I thought it completely missed the point and was kind of boring.

Which was the best film released in 2020 for you?
I thought the Russian film Dear Comrades! was really stunning. It was made by a director [Andrei Konchalovsky] in his 80s who first worked with Andrei Tarkovsky back in the late 1950s. He co-scripted Ivan’s Childhood. I would love to make my masterpiece when I’m 86 too!


The Mauritanian’ is in select US cinemas and virtual theaters now, and on SVOD from March 2. ‘Life in a Day 2020’ is available to stream free on YouTube, as is the original.

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