February 26, 2021

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The 10 minutes that makes The Mauritanian

5 min read

Tahar Rahim wanted to be waterboarded for The Mauritanian. “I asked the props department to bring me real shackles, to make the cell as cold as possible,” the actor told Salon. “I wanted to be waterboarded for real, force-fed. I lost 10-12 kilos in a short amount of time.”

Blessedly, few of us will ever come even half as close to knowing what it feels like to be held at the U.S. government’s most infamous extrajudicial detention center, Guantánamo Bay. But Rahim, the astonishing actor who plays detainee Mohamedou Ould Salahi in the film, out Friday, wanted to go further, to show what the camp’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” and sickeningly imaginative forms of torture felt like. But how do you capture interminable terror, an unimaginable physical ordeal, and delirium on screen, particularly when doing so paints the U.S. government in such a bad light?

Unflinchingly. With a roughly 10-minute-long montage scene, The Mauritanian bypasses any attempt to rationalize America’s post-9/11 choices, painting the events at the detention center as what they were (and are): abhorrent.

Based on the real Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s first-person account of his detention, published in Guantánamo Diary in 2015, the film begins in the North African nation of Mauritania in 2001, when Salahi unexpectedly gets called in by the local police for questioning. Subsequently, he is spirited across borders by the CIA, landing finally at Guantánamo. His captors allege he had some sort of involvement in 9/11 recruiting, yet hold him without a charge or a trial date. His case catches the attention of civil rights lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and her associate, Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), who decide to represent the Mauritanian on the grounds that it’s a textbook violation of habeas corpus. On the other side of the courtroom is the military prosecutor Lt. Col. Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch, complete with a southern accent), whose friend was a co-pilot on one of the planes hijacked in 9/11; Couch, believing Salahi had a role in the events, wants the death penalty.

Up until this point, the film plays like a pretty standard legal drama. But when Couch and Hollander are at last able to read the details of the conditions that led to Salahi’s written confession, the movie shifts its style. The Mauritanian drops the courtroom playbook in favor of a nightmarish sequence set to the strobe lights that the guards used to keep Salahi awake and disoriented. The Americans beat, sexually abuse, waterboard, verbally humiliate, threaten, taunt, and shackle Salahi into painful stress positions until he starts to hallucinate. An iguana — recalled from a sign seen hanging outside of Guantánamo that warns guards un-ironically not to harm the reptiles — blinks an eye at Salahi, as if Werner Herzog had some part in the making of the scene. Throughout the montage there are interspersed shots of Couch and Hollander’s horrified reactions to what they’re reading, and snippets of how the events are described by their respective sources: in the dry euphemisms of the American military for Couch, and in Salahi’s handwritten description to Hollander.

On screen, it feels never-ending: the whole scene, when I went back and checked, lasts less than 10 minutes. In truth, the guards tortured Salahi for at least 70 days.

Depicting Americans torturing their detainees is not in and of itself revelatory anymore. Famously, critics took issue with 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty torture scenes, claiming director Kathryn Bigalow showed “enhanced interrogation” productively contributing to the eventual finding and killing of Osama Bin Laden. But while I find Zero Dark Thirty to be far more critical of the CIA then some of my colleagues in the industry, the film does sympathetically remind viewers of the wartime mentality that led to the creation of black sites, opening with the actual 9/11 victims’ phone recordings to stoke a sense of outrage and vengeance. By contrast, The Mauritanian admirably makes no excuse for the rogue “justice” of America post-9/11; even the film’s antagonist, Couch, ultimately refuses to stay on the case, realizing that the U.S. is trying to pin a crime on an innocent man.

This is more unusual than it sounds. Hollywood and the Department of Defense have quietly worked with each other for decades, a partnership built on mutual interests: “Filmmakers gain access to [military] equipment, locations, personnel, and information that lend their productions authenticity, while the armed forces get some measure of control over how they’re depicted,” the Los Angeles Times explains. Likewise, “the CIA and the Pentagon regularly assist filmmakers whose scripts portray them in a positive light,” Deadline reportsincluding Zero Dark Thirty. All evidence appears to indicate that The Mauritanian was made without the same governmental cooperation, allowing for the deeply critical and brutal montage that shows the U.S. military gleefully breaking international law. Director Kevin Macdonald, a Scottish national, primarily shot the film in South Africa (the stand-in for Cuba), and never utilizes the kind of large military equipment that the Pentagon would have needed to approve.

It would have been one thing for The Mauritanian to be a movie about legal rights, but the surreal torture sequence makes it something closer to protest art. It translates what the U.S. military tried to sanitize with euphemisms and jargon, and what Salahi could only partially recount, into visible suffering over a passage of excruciating minutes. On top of all that, the epilogue then informs us that despite winning his case, the Mauritanian — who’d already been held unlawfully for seven years — then spent seven more years in the prison, under the Obama administration, before he was finally released.

It’s too much to quite wrap your head around. By the time you check your watch at the end of the movie, only two hours and nine minutes have passed, a relative blink of an eye compared to 14 years in an extrajudicial detention center when you know you’re an innocent man. The 10-minute torture sequence only accounts for one ten-thousandth of Salahi’s 70 days of torture.

Film does this; it compresses and expands time, depicting an endless ordeal in just a few hours of our afternoon. But The Mauritanian doesn’t let you forget it: This thing you’re watching? It is someone’s story. It is someone’s life.

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