I have said before that I do not really consider myself a film critic. I adore cinema, as you all know, but I feel these columns are akin to little chats with friends, that just happen to be about any recent films I might have seen. I certainly do not have the knowledge that many film critics have, but what I lack in expertise I make up for with passion. And I love it when my friends are equally as passionate about a film that I have never heard of. Such was the case with this week’s offering, “The Mauritanian”. Based on the true story of West African Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who spent fourteen years without charge in Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba.
I haven’t read Slahi’s book, and as someone that can be quite reclusive at times, I am ashamed to say I was unaware of his plight. And it is not a story for the faint-hearted. Two months after the terrorist attacks in New York on 9/11, Slahi is taken from a wedding to help the police with their enquiries. He does not return. Three years after his disappearance, Slahi’s family read in a newspaper that he is being held in Guantanamo Bay and approach a French lawyer to find out more. Acting on behalf of the family, he approaches Albuquerque lawyer Nancy Hollander to use her security clearance to find out more.
Slahi is accused of being one of the masterminds behind the 9/11 attacks and is being prosecuted by Naval lawyer Stuart Couch on behalf of the Marines. Much of the film revolves around both Hollander and Couch, played respectively by Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch, trying to retrieve information as to what happened during Slahi’s interrogation. During his time in prison, he confesses to his role in the New York terrorist attacks. As always with a true story, one never knows how accurate the details are, but if the alleged torture Slahi undergoes at the hands of the American Government is even half true, I would have confessed to anything in a heartbeat. I felt physically sick as Slahi, played very sensitively by Tahar Rahim, is subjected to months of physical, sexual and mental abuse that would break anyone.
For those of you, like me, unaware of the real-life story of Mohamedou, I shan’t reveal the ending here. I don’t want to spoil anything for those coming to this film with little knowledge, like me. Instead, I’d like to focus on the moral questions that run throughout. Naval lawyer Couch and defence Lawyer Hollander want the same thing. Justice. Just from different angles. Even with Couch wanting revenge for the loss of a friend who was on one of the hijacked planes, from early on in the proceedings I could not help but think that the two lawyers were in fact two sides of the same coin.
“The Mauritanian” explores notions of justice, revenge and even the intrinsic belief systems brought on by a religious moral code. It was fascinating to watch two opposing legal teams come to the same conclusion about the role of their government in uncovering such atrocities. Heavy stuff, admittedly, but well worth the effort. Cinema has many roles, the film industry does not exist purely to entertain or distract. Films like this shine a light on the society in which we live. And we may not always like what we see, but that does not mean that we should avert our gaze.
“The Mauritanian” is available to watch now on Amazon.