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.